The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan
It’s the year 2020, and the melting of the polar icecaps has finally caused incontrovertible damage. “All that fresh water is flooding the oceans, reducing salinity,” which in turn increases the potential for extreme winter conditions. “The northern British Isles are mainly frozen over, with icebergs at the furthest tip of the Orkney Islands,” the news reports. “Another iceberg — the biggest ever recorded outside the arctic — has entered an area of Scotland called Clachan Fells…we are not sure how many fatalities this harsh weather will create, but thousands and thousands of people are dying due to dangerous conditions, and this is only the beginning.”
Jenni Fagan’s intriguing The Sunlight Pilgrims follows Dylan MacRae to Clachan Fells from London after the untimely deaths of his mother Vivienne and grandmother Gunn. Dylan’s life revolved around their family business operating Babylon, an art-house cinema in Soho (he even lived in the theatre), and he was devastated to learn that the building was to be repossessed after Vivienne and Gunn’s passing. Upon discovering they left him the keys to a mobile home in the rural Clachan Fells, Dylan journeys north with their ashes in an effort to learn about his family’s history.
There, Dylan quickly falls in love with his neighbor Constance, a single mother whose confidence and sense of emotional survivalism proves irresistible. Her daughter, Stella, is a gawky twelve year-old in the throes of a difficult adolescence, and is rendered expertly by Fagan as a miniature version of her mother: a heartfelt dreamer with a sense of self that could rival the fears of doomsday that permeate the air.
Stella was born a boy, and began transitioning a year ago. In Stella, Fagan has created such a compelling character that the graceful handling of her story actually negates the environmental concerns around her. In one of The Sunlight Pilgrims many segues into its characters’ inner monologues, Stella ruminates on what she’s certain her male doctor will say about her needs to be who she really is:
Once [her doctor] has reassured himself that she understands there is no decision about her body that she will ever make all on her own, that it will be teams of others, or singles, or surveys, or down to questions of budget or protocol, once he sees that register in her eyes he’ll be satisfied. He’ll sit back and watch her absorb the power he has over whether she can be a true thing or not.
The Sunlight Pilgrims is full of these chillingly affecting moments of maturity and understanding of a transgender person’s uphill battle for what essentially should be the most normal thing there is. In this matter, the novel is a triumph, and Stella is a beacon of hope, awareness and empathy.
But, why melt the icecaps to get here? Despite some interesting background to Dylan and Constance, The Sunlight Pilgrims is wholly Stella’s story, and that story is incongruous with the novel’s apocalyptic happenings. Why bury an important, finely-rendered character in five feet of snow? It’s a stretch to connect Stella’s conflict thematically with the rest of the novel. The weather anomalies cause certain atmospheric effects, like the parhelion, where ice-crystals make the sun appear to be three orbs in the sky; one could try to elucidate this symbol in tandem with Stella, as “light soaks into her chromosomes”, but it all seems reductive. It is curious to read a girl so confidently dreaming of the woman she’ll finally get to grow into as the thermometer is dropping by the minute, almost oblivious of how “the world threatened to end each day,” but as a complete novel The Sunlight Pilgrims does not add up. All this leads to an abrupt, arbitrary ending, and it’s difficult not to think that Stella deserves better.