The sections in Jenni Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, are indicated by date and temperature, the dates revealing that the novel is set in our near future, the temperature suggesting that it belongs in the ever-growing sub-genre of climate catastrophe. While flood has generally been the doomsday scenario of choice in recent fiction, Fagan has opted for a new ice age instead: as the novel progresses, so the temperature drops, plunging Clachan Fells, the Scottish caravan park where it is set, into a winter without end.
Just as the novel begins with three suns in the sky – a naturally occurring illusion called parhelia, but one which immediately creates the sense of the world becoming another, more alien planet – so too are there three characters: Constance, her twelve-year-old daughter Stella, and Dylan, a newcomer to the park. Except that Stella was until recently Constance’s son and the community is struggling to accept her new identity. It doesn’t help that her ex-best friend, Lewis, shared a kiss with her, before becoming complicit in a beating she received from the local boys:
“He did kiss her, though, and the only two people who know about it are her and him. He won’t kiss her again in case any of his friends find out and think he’s weird – that’s why he won’t do it again. Or because he already knows he’d like it.”
Her estranged father also finds it difficult to accept:
“Stella always puts her father’s useless gifts into the charity shop at Clachan Fells. Somewhere in the village there is a boy walking around dressed as her father’s son.”
Dylan has arrived from London having lost his mother, grandmother, and the cinema where he was brought up. His unlikely destination is a result of his grandmother’s Scottish origins, and a parting gift from his mother:
“A pile of unpaid bills are stacked neatly in Vivienne’s vintage sewing box and when he got back from the crematorium he found an envelope containing the deeds for a caravan 578.3 miles away, with a pink post-it note and her scrawl: Bought for cash – no record in any of our accounts. Mum x.”
He quickly falls for Constance: it is typical of Fagan’s skill in marrying the everyday with deep emotion that this happens when he sees her vacuuming:
“At the end of the path a woman hoovers up the road…Her pyjama top rides up and exposes each knot of her vertebra like a fine rope.”
Though Stella is, of course, the star of the show (Fagan’s debut The Panopticon demonstrated her talent for describing the development of identity when growing up), The Sunlight Pilgrims, as the plural in the title suggests, is about the relationships which exist between the three main characters, and how this helps them to define who they are.
For a novel which headlines not one but two topical issues (climate and transsexuality), it is striking how quietly they are absorbed into the narrative, never seeming shouty or preachy. Fagan is aided by the narrative trick that is third person – Stella is simply ‘she’ throughout, overriding the questioning of her gender which takes place among her peers and unaccepting adults. Stella also fronts a line of confused adolescents dating back to at least The Catcher in the Rye – the context of the bullying and unrequited love may be different, but those aspects of coming of age are not. The worsening climate gives Fagan the confined setting, cutting off easy escape from these problems. In both cases, Fagan’s exploration of these themes is characterised by a profound sense of humanity – even the threat of an ice age is balanced by the desire to see an ice berg which is floating down the coast, a very human reaction.
The novel also has a compelling ambiguity. Even the story of the sunlight pilgrims leaves the reader uncertain whether to hope or despair:
“All they had to eat was gannets and one year they all went mad, threw themselves off the cliffs, about seventy of them… They all died apart from one. The found him on the mountaintop naked, sitting in lotus, drinking light… He said you just drink it. He said it keeps humans right.”
Even the title of the last section, The End Has Almost Come, is open to interpretation, as are the novel’s final lines. Such is Fagan’s affirmation of the essential humanity of her characters, however, that it is difficult to believe there isn’t hope.