The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

I absolutely loved Jenni Fagan’s first novel, The Panopticon, so I was excited to receive an advance copy of her new novel.  I was a little afraid it wouldn’t meet expectations, but it did.  In fact, Fagan’s second novel is very different from the first, but still excellent.

The Sunlight Pilgrims takes place in the near future, at a time where winter weather has gotten much worse, with terrible impacts around the world.  The book centers around three main characters trying to make it through the worst winter ever in a small Scottish town.  Dylan has just moved from London; his mother and grandmother just died and the family business, a movie theater, has gone bankrupt.  His mother left him a trailer in Scotland.  He befriends Constance and her twelve-year-old daughter Stella.  Survival in this small remote town has become -almost- the only thing that matters, as an iceberg heads towards Scotland.

At its heart, this is not a book about the apocalypse but more of a character study.  In that way it reminded me a bit of Station Eleven.  It’s a story about three people finding each other and themselves.  Well, maybe two people.  Dylan and Stella have a lot to work out but Constance is pretty put together.  We never get in her head the way we do Dylan and Stella.  Fagan connects her powerfully with nature, which is a huge force in this book but not necessarily a negative one.

“I was taught how to [stare at the sun] by the sunlight pilgrims, they’re from the islands farthest north.  You can drink light right down into your chromosomes, then in the darkest minutes of winter, when there is a total absence of it, you will glow and glow and glow.”

I loved the characters of Dylan and Stella, and their stories kept me riveted to this book.  Dylan is a somewhat confused twenty-ish young man who’s lost everything.  Dylan is a walking misfit in this small town: he’s unusually tall and heavily tattooed.  He doesn’t have a plan beyond finding his mother’s mobile home, getting through the winter, and burying the ashes of his mother and grandmother.  He doesn’t know who his father was and he’s not sure he needs to find out.

He immediately falls in love with Constance, but it’s with Stella that a deep friendship develops.  Stella is a young transgender pre-teen.  She’s struggling with the physical transition from boy to girl and has to deal with bullying from her peers, including one boy she thought was her friend.  She particularly needs her father to recognize who she is.

At a time when transgender issues are in the news, this book has a lot of insights about what it means to be a different gender than the body you were born into.  Most of us may accept it but still find it hard to understand.  I loved the character of Stella.  She’s brave, passionate, and thoughtful – which is saying a lot for a teenager.

The main thing about this book is the writing.  Fagan’s prose ranges from profanity to poetry, sometimes all at once.  It’s the kind of book where you stop to read a paragraph a few times, not because it’s confusing but because it speaks to you.

When the tiny dark door in her heart creaks open, she will walk right through it.  She will lie down and sleep inside her own heart like a bird in the night.

You might expect more to happen in this book than what actually does.  It’s cold out, and there’s not a lot these characters can do, which makes this novel all the more about character.

I find a lot of second novels disappoint; this one never did.

Note: I received a complimentary advance copy of this novel from NetGalley and Crown Publishing.  This book will be released July 19, 2016.

4 Responses to “The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan”

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