Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims has, in all of the reviews I’ve seen so far, been billed as the latest climate fiction must-read. According to the reviews, the world as we know it is coming to an end as a new Ice Age arrives. We watch the weather get colder and colder through the eyes of a man, a woman, and the woman’s daughter. I expected characters that would be busy with worries about the future. How would they grow food? How would they stay warm? But the climate, while a constant concern, is not what occupies the characters’ minds. Instead of a book about apocalyptic winter, Fagan gave me a moving story of a transgender teenager in the midst of her transition and a young man struggling with grief over the loss of his mother and grandmother. The Sunlight Pilgrims is a bait and switch, but I don’t mind a bit.
There is a small caravan park (trailer park) in Clachan Fells, Scotland. In one of the trailers, Constance Fairbairn lives with her daughter, Stella. Stella has been transitioning for a little over a year, but is on the cusp of puberty. Even if her hormones weren’t about to derail her efforts to be a girl, Stella has to contend with the bullying of her classmates. Her mother champions Stella, castigating the bullies whenever they hurt her daughter emotionally physically, but Constance is about the only ally Stella has. Even her father still hasn’t adjusted to the fact that his son is now his daughter. He keeps sending her boy’s clothes.
Fortunately for Stella, Dylan MacRae has just moved into the trailer next door. His mother bought it for him when she knew that she wouldn’t survive her cancer and that the London art-house theatre where Dylan grew up was buried in debt. Dylan has nowhere else to go except for the so-to-be frozen north of Clachan Fells. The first person Dylan meets at the caravan park is Stella and the two seem instantly comfortable with each other. When Dylan meets Constance, he’s a goner for the fiercely independent woman.
The Sunlight Pilgrims opens just as an early winter arrives in the British Isles. The plot skips ahead a few months, then a few more months, as the temperature keeps dropping. The climate change provides a strong background to the plot. The cold and the snow and the wind are always there, providing a sense of urgency to the character’s emotional arcs and raising the stakes of every conflict and crisis. By the end of the book, I worried even more for these characters because they had more to contend with than the possibility that spring might never come.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 19 July 2016.
* This is the cover of the British edition. I’m using it here because I like it much better than the American edition’s cover.