Since moving to Edinburgh last year I’ve been wanting to read more Scottish books. This has been surprisingly difficult, since my general reading list has also been growing at a similar pace. But I’d been hearing so many good things about The Sunlight Pilgrims I felt I had to make time for it.
And it surpassed my expectations. The strangeness of the story, and the sheer lyricism of the prose, drew me in from the very first page: The Sunlight Pilgrims has turned out to be one of the most beautiful books I’ve read all year, in more ways than one.
Fagan is capable not only of evoking a scene or sensation but really transporting the reader: I was in sunny Greece the whole time I was reading this book but I often found myself putting on an extra sweater or burrowing deeper into the blankets while reading this one.
The cold of the book is all-pervasive, practically a character in its own right. Its presence makes the characters’ struggle for love and authenticity and self-actualization and self-expression all the more fraught, and it adds an extra layer of tension to the story, a looming apocalypse that everyone knows is coming but which no one is equipped to deal with.
Fagan writes winter scenes that make the reader writhe with sympathetic cold, but she also imbues them with such power and portent that they take on the aspect of legend, or more accurately, omen. This gives Pilgrims that indefinable hint of magic that allows so many of my favorite stories to traverse that line between simple and speculative fiction.
The Sunlight Pilgrims tells a story rarely told in apocalypse narratives: how do the people occupying the fringes of society hold their lives together in the face of a destructive, inexorable force? How do people who, like Stella, need the technological innovations of twenty-first century society to live their lives authentically, survive when that society collapses?
The main point of my review has to do with its protagonist, Stella. As a queer, transgender writer, I’ve been disappointed too many times to seek out stories with trans characters on my own: I’m tired of the queer-baiting, the kill-your-lesbians, the unrequited sadgay, the fact that no gay story can be anything but a Gay Story, so much so that I no longer seek out writing I know has LGBTQ themes in it. The most I can do is read writers I like and hope they don’t disappoint.
Jenni Fagan has not disappointed. In the character of Stella, though her story does not mirror my own, I reccognize the same tempestuous feelings of self-doubt and defiance and fear and tentative love, that plagued my own youth (I say ‘youth’ as if I weren’t in my mid-twenties, but you know what I mean), and Fagan writes stella from the very first page with such careful tenderness that I never found myself cringing at her scenes, like I often do when reading about a queer or trans character, a bit like a dog, hit too many times but still hopeful.
And I recognized in Stella’s very organic affection for Dylan-whom she has only known for a little while-that fierce loyalty, a powerful kind of love that I myself have felt, for the friends who have made an effort, not just to accommodate but to understand my gender identity, as an essential part of who I am as a person. The love I feel for the friends I know have stood up for me, who have corrected other people when they get my pronouns wrong, who have not apologized for me to others. Jenni Fagan has made an effort to evoke this feeling, and it resonates strongly.
This is a kinder apocalypse narrative than most, populated by characters who support each other both physically and emotionally, not because the approaching blackness necessitates it, and the alternative is to freeze alone, but because they are kind people, who care about each other, and who themselves have been forced to exist outside the safety net of society, and thus understand the dangers that isolation entails. Despite the tragic ending-arguably unavoidable considering the premise of the story-the tone of the book manages to stay hopeful throughout, and Fagan’s vivid, immediate prose makes every page like a splash of cold water. Read this story if you want to read about love, and fear and existential dread, or if you want a glimpse of what it’s like to be me. Read this story.
The Sunlight Pilgrims is by Jenni Fagan, and is available for purchase here, and at your local bookstore.