The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

Windmill, 2016, 314 p.

 The Sunlight Pilgrims cover

Though I have some caveats about it this is a beautifully written, engaging novel touching on those three novelistic perennials love, sex and death, and peopled with sympathetic, rounded characters.

Dylan MacRae’s inheritance, an art-house cinema in London, has been forced to close with heavy debts. With his mother’s – and grandmother’s – ashes he retreats to a caravan his mother had bought in the area of Clachan Fells in Scotland. Once there he finds himself attracted to his next door neighbour, Constance, whose twelve-year old daughter, Stella, is in the process of transitioning from a boy and is the object of local curiosity and sometime bullying from her classmates. All this is occurring as the ice-caps melt, the seas in the northern hemisphere are being diluted by fresh water run-off, the North Atlantic Drift is switching off and Europe is being plunged into a deep winter. The book’s four parts are headed “November 2020, -6 degrees”; “8th December 2020, -19 degrees”; “31st January 2021, -38 degrees”; “The End Has Almost Come 19th March 2021, -56 degrees”. (I have no idea why, in the text, that last date is italicised.)

Those dates might suggest this is a work of Science Fiction but it is hard to sustain that reading. If it is actually a metaphor, which I doubt, the increasing temperatures are not literalised in the way Science Fiction deals with such things and are not manifested in the characters’ interactions.

Fagan’s story is told through Dylan’s and Stella’s viewpoints and it is in effect one of relationships and family, one that could be told without any reference to external factors of climate or setting. There is a hint of fantasy in the appearances of Dylan’s grandmother to Stella but one of these was in a dream. In addition, Clachan Fells is described as if it is a remote location yet it is near a motorway and there is an IKEA within easy travelling distance, both of which would place it near a city. The deep freeze extends as far as North Africa – a touch unlikely I’d have thought. The metal door of a caravan is mentioned frequently. If anyone touched it at those temperatures their fingers would stick fast to it.

These are cavils and do not reflect on Fagan’s ability to conjure character. Dylan, his mother and grandmother, Constance, Stella, even local vagrant Barnacle, felt like living, breathing people. If the circumstances of, and reasons for, Dylan’s mother’s purchase of the caravan strain credulity a little it does not detract from the depiction of the characters and their relationships.

Constance mentions trick-or-treating to Dylan. The Scottish (and Northern Irish) term is guising. Fagan may have placed the USianism in Constance’s mouth when speaking to him since he grew up in London and she might have assumed he wouldn’t be familiar with it. In Stella’s thoughts, though, the activity is described as guising. This is a very subtle piece of writing by Fagan which would go over the heads of those unfamiliar with the original term.

It is somewhat ironic that the woman who has for years had ongoing relationships with the same two men, adds Dylan to the list, and has had other liaisons, is named Constance. I’ll presume Fagan intended this though.

The Sunlight Pilgrims contains excellent writing and utterly believable characters. Stella’s voice in particular is a joy. In The Panopticon Fagan has previously shown ability to get inside the head of a troubled teenager. In that book the adults were slightly less to the fore. Here all are wonderfully realised.

Pedant’s corner :- morgue (mainly USian, the British term is mortuary,) and later, mortician (the British usage is undertaker,) “a trail of empty wine glasses lead to” (a trail leads to,) “a pile of unpaid bills are stacked” (a pile is stacked,) “a stack of records have still not been put back in their sleeves” (a stack has not,) “none of these things are going to happen” (none is going to happen – after a while I gave up counting these failures of verbs to agree with their subjects,) “the wind farm’s nacelle rotate” (I doubt the plural of nacelle is irregular as in “sheep” or “aircraft”, so nacelles,) Ikea (it’s IKEA,) in the corner of her eyes (corners,) then they gone (they’re,) bended heads (I know “bent heads” would have meant something different but so does bended [compare bended knee,] bowed heads conveys the sense, though bowed is used on the next line,) a quoted news report says “there have barely been any bird sightings for weeks now. Those that are in nests have just frozen,” (no birds would have been nesting as late as November, when the freeze is said to have started.)

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