The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

Posted July 19, 2016 by Taryn in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni FaganThe Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan
Published by Crown/Archetype on July 19th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Coming of Age, Psychological, Dystopian
Pages: 288
Format: Print ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Buy on Amazon

3.5 Stars. Three people living their day-to-day lives in a time of great upheaval. 5-star character/setting & beautiful writing, but I was at a 2-star level of engagement. It was slow moving and not much happened. That isn’t always a deal-breaker for me, but I just didn’t click with this book.

All the villagers look worried and that is the worst thing. Before it was just poverty, pestilence, terrorists, pedophiles, drugs, eating disorders, online grooming, meteors skimming a bit too close for comfort. Now every single person in this hall looks like they are terrified they’re all about to become frozen corpses. For the first time since the news broke, Stella gets this stabbing feeling in her heart that must be some new kind of fear. [Stella]

It’s November 2020 and a terrible cold is descending upon the globe, the worst winter on record. Dylan MacRae is grieving the recent loss of his mother and grandmother, as well as his home and livelihood. On the way to burying his mother’s and grandmother’s ashes, he stops in a caravan park where his mother frequently stayed. The caravan is next-door to Constance and her twelve-year-old daughter Stella. Dylan is instantly attracted to Constance and he becomes close friends with her daughter. Spending time with is neighbors makes him realize that he has spent his life existing rather than living. While going through his mother’s belongings, he learns a devastating secret that connects him to Constance and Stella in unexpected ways.

Something in him comes from this rock, these mountains, this landscape, something older than time and generational — all those links to people who survived this place and thrived and lived, all those suicidal monks and one lone sunlight pilgrim, butt-naked and tough as hell. [Dylan]

I’ve been reading so many cold weather books lately! The entire story takes place during the winter of 2020-2021. It’s divided into four parts and the temperature plummets to dangerous levels as the months pass. The characters live in a caravan park in the Scottish village of Clachan Falls. I enjoyed the unique little village and its eccentric inhabitants. It was like a bleak Stars Hollow! The writing is poetic and there’s is an urgent, exuberant quality to it that made me feel wonderment for nature. There are no quotation marks; the dialogue is differentiated with dashes. I didn’t have trouble following the conversations like I have with some novels with unique punctuation usage (See: All Things Cease to Appear). The story alternates between the perspectives of Dylan and Stella. Constance is also a central character, but we only view her through the eyes of Dylan and Stella. 

All their robot children like their knobs and buttons shiny and silver and none of them understand what a real robot has to withstand, if they are to have so much rust but still be able to run as fast as the others on sports day or sing as loud at Christmas. The carols! ‘Little Donkey’, the verse about Mary carrying the heavy load, it always makes her cry. [Stella]

I had to force myself through Dylan’s chapters, but I did love his relationship with Stella. Stella is my favorite part book and I was most engaged during her coming-of-age sections. She is mature, self-assured, and has a great sense of humor. She came out as transgender thirteen months before the book starts. Her father refuses to acknowledge her transition and she is bullied by the kids at school. She also worries about her mother and thinks Constance deserves much better than the men she chooses.

There are interesting parallels drawn with the intensifying weather and Stella’s rapidly changing situation. While the climate is going through an intense change and a glacier creeps its way to the shores of her community, Stella’s starts going through puberty. She wants to take hormone pills, but dangerous weather and the attitudes of others are a huge roadblock. There are also tie-ins with the past coming to roost in the present: the light from stars, a glacier from a million years ago bringing a winter (“If the world has fifteen million years of frozen geology there and it can enter the present and melt and bring forth another Ice Age…”), and Constance’s conversation with Stella about embryos following a female blueprint for the first ten weeks.

Stella is like the wind outside and Constance is the fire. The wind is gentle, blowing lightly to brighten the flames, to stop the fire going out. [Dylan]

Constance is a survivalist. I admired her resourcefulness and determination.“Luck and tenacity are her only employer.” She is Stella’s biggest advocate and her biggest fear is not being able to protect Stella in a cruel and unforgiving world. Constance has two lovers and the community judges her for it, though her lovers escape the same judgment. Constance knows what she wants. She doesn’t hide who she is and she doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

Stella tugs the wolf-head until the ears sit perfectly; two long furry arms snake down on either side of her braids and the fur is white, like the wolf walked right out of the snow — like winter herself created it from particles of ice and dust and sent it out to find a mortal girl who isn’t afraid of the big bad wolf, who knows how to use an axe and stir her own porridge, who knows that worth isn’t something you let another person set for you, it is something you set for yourself. [Stella]

Now for what I didn’t like! The story moved at a glacial pace and I wasn’t engaged in the story as a whole. I don’t always dislike slow-moving. character-driven books. A few things happened here:
(1) While I understand the comparisons to Station Eleven, those comparisons also had me expecting a little more plot.
(2) If I’m already disinterested, poetic writing that sometimes drifts into streams of consciousness intensifies that feeling.
(3) I kept feeling teased with action (using the word ‘action’ lightly here). Anytime something interesting happened or I felt the tension build, the scene would cut and we would move forward in time. The parts I was most interested in happened offstage. It drew attention to how little was actually happening outside of the character’s thoughts and I lost patience. The characters do experience growth, but it was so gradual that it felt like nothing was happening.

Despite my reservations about the rest of the book. I thought the ending was appropriate. It’s possible I assumed too much about what happened. It was very abrupt. I would have LOVED an epilogue that mirrored the beautifully-written prologue!

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. [Dylan]

In conclusion: I was disinterested for the most part, but I loved Stella and the setting enough to keep reading. I think the same part of me that had difficulty appreciating Fates & Furies (especially Lotto’s section) had difficulty getting into The Sunlight Pilgrims. It was one of those “It’s not you, it’s me!” books. It’s receiving very high ratings from many respected reviewers. If you are looking for a quiet literary book with interesting characters and an immersive setting, this book may be for you. Here is a list of books I thought of while reading:

• Becoming Nicole: True story about a transgender girl and her family. Stella’s experience mirrors Nicole’s in many ways.
• The Dog Stars: Surviving in a post-apocalyptic world, grief, coping, global catastrophe not the main point.
• The Quality of Silence: Set in the modern world and plot-driven, but interesting mother/daughter relationship and Arctic setting. 10-year-old deaf girl experiences bullying because of her differences.
• Good Morning, Midnight : I’m about 75% through this one right now. It shares many qualities with The Sunlight Pilgrims: Quiet, character-driven novel, post-apocalyptic, surviving in freezing temperatures (Antarctica), the global catastrophe takes a backseat to internal struggles, etc. Oddly enough, the things I didn’t like in The Sunlight Pilgrims, I am loving in this Good Morning, Midnight!

Stella holds the clear tusk out in front of her — puts it up to her head as if she is the unicorn — she spins around, holding the icicle out in front of her as a spear- – jabbing it into air to show the spirit plane that she is her mother’s daughter — that the child of a wolf may not feel like she has fangs until she finds herself facing the moon, but they are still there the whole time regardless.



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