Author of the acclaimed Panopticon, Jenni Fagan sets her new novel The Sunlight Pilgrims in a dystopian world: it is 2020 and the earth is facing the rapid onset of a second Ice Age. The protagonist, Dylan MacRae, a strapping, six-foot-seven-inch hulk of a man, flees panic-stricken London armed with the ashes of his late mother Vivienne and his grandmother Gunn. Harbouring unresolved emotional issues stemming from the fact that his mother kept her fatal illness a secret from him, he heads towards the Scottish Highland settlement of Clachan Fells in order to take up occupancy of a caravan left to him by Vivienne. Fagan sets the grim tone of the book almost immediately by noting that a natural phenomenon termed parhelia (where climate change causes reflections of the sun to appear in the sky alongside the original solar body) heralds the onset of the most extreme winter witnessed on Earth for over 200 years.
Almost without exception, dystopian novels ranging from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale need to dwell extensively on establishing the atmosphere and environment of the novel concerned. Fagan’s book is no exception; while she introduces her major characters without delay, all of them are portrayed as being severely affected by the freezing climate. Some of them try to ‘soak up’ whatever little sunlight there is in a pitiful attempt to restore their spirits. Spanning just a couple of months, the action of the novel appears to compress time in a manner that enhances the feeling of impending doom which persists throughout the book. The 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow focused on this very subject and displayed some remarkable special effects demonstrating fast-freezing terrain and humankind’s utter helplessness in the face of vengeful nature. Fagan’s writing veers towards the deeply poetic and this stands her in good stead when she writes about the myriad beautiful and terrible aspects of winter: frost, snowflakes, icicles, snowdrifts, forbiddingly cold hills, iced walkways, glaciers, and even large icebergs floating threateningly across the oceans.
Jenni Fagan’s latest novel is a chilling reminder of the fact that humans cannot contend with major natural disasters and expect to come out unscathed
On arriving at the caravan camp in Clachan Fells, Dylan meets Constance Fairbairn and her daughter Stella — unbeknownst to him his grandmother, Gunn, has strong, personally historic connections to this place and its people. The caravans range from being stark and unappealing to more romantic, such as one termed Rose Cottage. While Dylan predictably falls for the tough yet feminine Constance, it is her daughter Estella (Stella) who steals the show. Stella is a complex and memorable character; born and raised female, at puberty she is experiencing a spontaneous sex change and views her approaching manhood with justifiable apprehension and sad revulsion. It soon becomes evident that Fagan has not introduced a transgender child just in order to garner attention. All aspects of Stella’s physical and psychological development ranging from her mother’s fiercely protective concern for her daughter to Stella’s perception of the gender dynamics of others receive careful consideration by Fagan when it comes to character delineation and interaction. In spite of being faced with such a tremendous personal change, Stella maintains her quirky, lively, almost electric sense of self with considerable grace throughout the novel.
But while a reader may invariably feel sympathetic towards Stella, the other characters merit no such favours on our part. In spite of being given some memorable speeches, Dylan acts like an exasperating adolescent. In addition to being involved with a man named Caleb, Constance is also in a passive-aggressive relationship with a married man named Alistair whose behaviour towards her borders on emotionally abusive. Finally, the community members of Clachan Fells emerge as a pathetic lot (and not just because of the oppressive weather). Given the tough times, children’s schooling is administered on a volunteer basis and Stella finds herself at the mercy of a set of well-meaning but world-weary nuns whose ability to teach is as ineffective as their ability to combat the weather. One of the saddest characters in the book is Barnacle, an aging man whose tragic death by hypothermia leaves the average reader feeling as depressed as the character whose unhappy lot it is to find him in a rigidly frozen condition.
Many readers will be seriously put off by the undeniably scatological aspects of Fagan’s writing, some parts of which are truly disturbing. Some may labour to appreciate why she feels the necessity to refer frequently to vomit, excrement, bodily functions, and unpleasant hormonal tensions. In fact, one of the greatest surprises in the book is that nothing as serious as paedophilia occurs, in spite of the fact that Fagan appears to have painstakingly set the stage for something like that to happen. Speaking more colloquially, one often finds oneself grossed out throughout the novel, which thematically depicts a remarkably bizarre combination of the earthy and the (literally) chilling. At first I assumed, as many readers might, that this combination is supposed to reflect Stella’s adolescent angst and temperament. However, I found much to my surprise that Stella generally behaves with far greater maturity than the adults in the book, including her romantically dysfunctional mother and the rather oversexed Dylan. Stella’s more childish moments, such as when she accidentally disposes of the ashes of one of Dylan’s relatives, are fraught with memorable dark humour. It wasn’t really her fault since he was foolish enough to place them in a Tupperware container!
“Coatlicue has snakes in her hair and her skirt is a ballgown made out of skulls; they are tiny little skulls at the top and they get bigger all the way down, and when she walks across the universe they move out around her and talk to each other in whispers, and she collects souls that have been lost out there and puts them back in the river of Lethe so they can return. They say out there somewhere is a bar beyond the veil where they siphon off the souls of humans. Funny thing is, when I first got here and I was up on the mountain a cloud drifted up over where I was standing and I had this feeling of being on the other side of life ...” — Excerpt from the book
Some of the redeeming features of the book are reflected in Stella’s ability to enjoy the rare beauties that this terrible winter has to offer — there is a particularly endearing and thrilling episode where she toboggans through the snow at what feels like the speed of lightening. Like the rest of her despairing community, she is awestruck by a magnificent display of the Northern Lights in Clachan Fells that dazzle and inspire in equal measure, briefly uplifting the characters’ dreary existence. Less self-absorbed than many of the adults in the novel (although she has far more reason to be) Stella, whose very name hints at wintry starlight, is the only major reason for a reader to complete his or her perusal of the novel. It is not that the other characters are underdeveloped; one simply does not care about them as much as one does for her. When she encounters an unsympathetic endocrinologist whose attitude towards her predicament appears colder than the weather, even the most hard-hearted of readers will feel a genuine pang of sympathy.
That Fagan wanted to write an unusual and original novel is not in dispute here. However, depicting the excesses of nature is one thing, depicting the excesses of human nature is an entirely different matter. The novel is not truly epic in scope or scale or tone, and hence fails to classify as a genuine work of art. A single interesting character and unique setting plus some well-written passages do not compensate for its numerous structural flaws. To be fair, however, the genre of the dystopian novel is one of the most complex that any novelist can tackle and Fagan is by no means the first to have run into problems with it. Perhaps the author should be commended for accurately underscoring that none of us can contend against major natural disasters and win — a sobering thought that belittles most great human achievements with relentless cruelty. That Stella’s spirit survives against overwhelming external and internal odds is also a point worth keeping in mind. Unfortunately, like a number of its characters the rest of The Sunlight Pilgrims will not make a particularly lasting impression on anyone; like the parhelia suns it is simply a pale reflection of what constitutes truly great writing.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.
The Sunlight Pilgrims
By Jenni Fagan
Windmill Books, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 6th, 2016