The Sunlight Pilgrims
by Jenni Fagan
Hogarth/Crown | 2016
Hardcover: 288 pages
ARC Hardcover from Blogging for Books and E-copy from edelweiss in exchange for an unbiased review.
There are three suns in the sky and it is the last day of autumn-perhaps forever…Parhelia...Some say it is the end of times…Icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks, or the long bony finger of winter herself… Penitents. Blin’-drift. Owerblaw…Snowflakes cartwheel out of the sky……..
The melting of the polar ice has reached its most extreme. Worldwide temperatures are plummeting rapidly. Winter has arrived early and getting worse every day without any uptick. Experts say it might never leave. Temperatures dropping as winter advances -15°F… -30°F … -70°F. Sea water contaminated with fresh water and frozen as far from shore as can be seen with the naked eye. Snowfall depths are unprecedented worldwide. Many believe a new Ice Age has begun.
A setting this catastrophic would seem to be the focal point of the story when in reality it is only the set dressing; choosing to focus instead on the minutia of humanity and three individuals specifically amid the uncertain future of the planet.
Dylan McRae, 38, mourns the recent deaths of his mother and grandmother. If his heavy grief wasn’t burden enough, he learns their home and source of family income, an old London movie theater named Babylon, has gone into bankruptcy. His mother’s will contained surprising news of a caravan he now owns in a small Scottish caravan park in the middle of God knows where. She asked that he spread both women’s ashes in a remote Scottish village, his grandmother’s birth place. Gathering up what belongings he could fit into his mother’s old suitcase including Grandmother Gunn in an ice cream container and Mum in a sandwich box he heads north facing the rapidly approaching deep winter. His plans are to sell the caravan after fulfilling his mother’s last request and head back south to some where warm like Vietnam or Cambodia.
Upon arriving at caravan #7 on Ash Lane he briefly spots a young girl in the window next door. Later in the night he is awakened to a strange noise and discovers a sleepwalking woman hoovering up the street before entering the caravan next door. Reentering the street with a dust-cloth she reaches up and polishes the moon.
The young girl next door is 12 year old Stella Fairbairn. Precocious, bold, foul mouthed and outspoken, Stella arrives on his doorstep to quiz Dylan about his arrival and relationship to the last visitor to that caravan; Vivienne- his mother. Stella has been a girl for the past thirteen months. Previously she was a boy named Cael. Stella has always felt she was a girl. No doubts. She is bullied at school and obsessed about the changes puberty will bring locking her inside a male body forever.
Constance Fairbairn, Stella’s mother and the moon polisher, is a free spirit and a survivalist answering to no one. Stella believes she knows just about everything and should go back to teaching. Was she a teacher? We don’t learn if she was but she does have a great deal of trivial knowledge. Constance earns her living removing furniture from the homes of the dead and scouring the town dump for items to be re-purposed. Her life style and romantic choices have made her the central focus of town gossip primarily for maintaining two on-going and simultaneous 20 year affairs… the result of which yielded young Stella…or as her father prefers Cael.
Constance’s story is more obscure as she has pretty much found her own voice and is happy with her life. We learn what we know about her past from the conversations between Dylan, Stella and other minor (but very interesting) characters. Dylan finds a sketch book left by his mother and discovers family secrets that shake his world and the reason his mother bought that particular caravan. Stella begins to shed false friends unable to support her transgender status at the same time yearns for love and acceptance often daydreaming of a normal life as a wife and mother.
As Dylan, Constance and Stella’s lives are revealed in the light of day, winter shrinks their days and threatens their very survival. When they venture outside, we learn that amidst the approaching apocalypse there is sublime beauty only nature can provide.
- Transgender coverage was very real and will perhaps give many readers a different perspective and hopefully more compassion and empathy. For me personally, I guess I never realized how brave and courageous someone would have to be to present themselves openly and honestly to the world.
- Grief has no time limits. Dylan’s story dragged on and on just as it does in real life often stressing friendships and relationships.
- Love. Many unique perspectives of love.
- Survival. Are any of us ready to face a new Ice Age. How would you behave trying to feed your family or keep them warm temperatures at -70°F and with over 10 feet of snow trapped. The world is trapped. Would you survive?
In the end I was glad that I had done some research on the book before I read it. It helped to know that the pace of the book would be very slow. As I expected in a true tragic situation, simple life goes on amid life altering outside influences.