The Sunlight Pilgrims
by Jenni Fagan
It’s November of 2020, and the world is freezing over. Each day colder than the last. There’s snow in Israel, the Thames is overflowing, and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to drift just off the coast of Scotland. As ice water melts into the Atlantic, frenzied London residents evacuate by the thousands for warmer temperatures down south. But not Dylan. Grieving and ready to build life anew, he heads north to bury his mother’s and grandmother’s ashes on the Scottish islands where they once lived.
Hundreds of miles away, twelve-year-old Estella and her survivalist mother, Constance, scrape by in the snowy, mountainous Highlands, preparing for a record-breaking winter. Living out of a caravan, they spend their days digging through landfills, searching for anything with restorative and trading value. When Dylan arrives in their caravan park in the middle of the night, life changes course for Estella and Constance. Though the weather worsens, his presence brings a new light to daily life, and when the ultimate disaster finally strikes, they’ll all be ready.
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group / Hogarth
Publication: July 19, 2016
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTAQ*
I received this title for free in exchange for an honest review
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The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jennie Fagan
A global environmental disaster sets the backdrop for The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jennie Fagan, yet for all that the synopsis emphasizes these apocalyptic times, the story focuses more on family connections and growing up/living in a small town. The main part of the story that drew me in and kept me interested was Stella and seeing her try to cope with life in a tiny, bigoted crowd.
Character development was the driving point of this Sunlight Pilgrims. Readers see Stella evolve from extremely insecure, depressed, and self-conscious, to realizing the boys and kids around her aren’t worth her attention, depression. She learns this the hard way after an alluded to hospital stay. Why is Stella having such a hard time? Because she is a transgirl living in a tiny, religious town. Stella was the high point for me and I was extremely eager to read her chapters, to see more of her evolution. Meanwhile, we also have Londoner Dylan befriending Stella and trying to woo her mother. His arc started with emotion and steam, but fizzled out almost immediately. The only time his arc picked up interest was when he discovered his dark family secret, which I would have loved to have seen more fully explored.
While this reminds me a bit of A Sudden Light by Garth Stein mixed with The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, it doesn’t seem to come close to being as great as either. Still, The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Faber is a solidly written book, but does falter at living up to the synopsis. I would have preferred the apocalyptic nature of the extreme cold and snow had been shown as something extremely serious (like it was in “The Book of Strange New Things“) and/or that there be a greater focus on Stella’s development and maturing, as well as a more in-depth look at Dylan’s family secret and its impact.
Quotes & Excerpts
There is a slight impenetrability to absence.
It’s all borrowed: bricks; bodies; breathing — it’s all on loan! Eighty years on the planet if you’re lucky; why do they say if you’re lucky? Eighty years and people trying to get permanent bits of stone before they go, as if permanence were a real thing. Everyone has been taken hostage. Bankers and big business are tyrannical demigods. Where is the comeback? There is no comeback because they own the people who have the guns who are there to keep the people (bankers and big business and governments) fucking safe and now they’re saying on the news it is too little, too late.
I just wanted to tell you that holding your hand when you were a kid, watching The Wizard of Oz on the big screen in our pajamas, sitting on the back step eating our cheese sandwiches together or hanging out with Gunn, drinking gin — they were the very best minutes of my life. I could have traveled the world and nothing would have beat them. I’m sorry I didn’t teach you how to let the world in (other than in film) but I never figured out how to do it myself.
Right down there in the darkest cells. Tiny dots of light!
Like little lanterns inside her veins.
Or glowworms curling to sleep. In the most secret part of her — a place where she will go and sip tea one day — and to get there she’ll have to go through the darkest parts of herself — between the pulsing aorta with its rivers of blood — to her heart, where there is a tiny little door to forever.
Sometimes, in the quiet moments like this, she has to fight note to hate her body for threatening her with a baritone. She won’t do that, though, she won’t let herself hate it, because her body is a good one. It is strong. A girl is a girl is a girl.
He feels bad for the dead and their secret squirrel routine.
All those little lies, left unsaid, in families; all the things that then become unsayable.
The selfish dead fuck off and leave us with half-truths and questions and random relations and bankruptcy and debt and bad hearts and questionable genetics and stupid habits and DNA codes for diseases and they never mention all the things that are coming– like a fight at a wedding, it just breaks out one day.