This is the title for my next poetry collection. I am currently writing a lot of new poetry and hope to perhaps have this in a coherent form by next year. In the meantime, records, records, records — gin.
Ola. I apologise for blogging so rarely and erratically. However, I am currently writing two novels set over one-hundred and ten years. I am also writing an animation feature film (arthouse, for adults, not that kind no) and working on my first short film as a writer/director. I’m off to America in a few weeks time for a huge trip as part of #outriders with Edinburgh International Book Festival — I am aiming to blog a lot whilst I’m there. Tonight someone tweeted to me that they had just taught their last class at Columbia and ended with The Sunlight Pilgrims. It is in such a nice stack of books it kind of disarms me. People ask about ‘the second novel’ how was it? Are you okay? How was it received? What does it mean to you? To anyone? My neighbour asked me outright as I was trying to get into my house with my shopping (wearing an old Micky Mouse t-shirt and v.grunge hair) if I thought my first book was my best one? Well, I don’t. I love The Sunlight Pilgrims. I grew as a writer with that and I did what I wanted to do. Take a risk. TSP was also on Off The Shelf’s 15 Dystopian Books for People Who Don’t Read Dystopian Novels — again in extraordinary company and sat right up the top. These things are good for novelists. They help us keep going through the cultural wastelands armed with spears and fury. Both things, are vital for book writing. So, if I am not here so often it is because I am mostly time travelling through 110 years in two huge books that have taken over most of my life. Giving thanks for things like this though and I’ll be in NY soon, then Detroit, Chicago, Michigan, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, San Diego, LA. It seems like a dream but I’ll be typing to you from it very soon.
Picture this — a 15 year-old girl is in a tiny bedroom. There are twelve other identical bedrooms outside her door. She angles a standard issue social work bed diagonally across her room to disrupt the aesthetic uniformity of this children’s care home. There is a stack of books in the corner. A lot of those books are on the occult or science. She is smoking. The window is open. The staff can be heard chatting downstairs. The kids in this unit do not use official titles for the ‘care workers’, they are just ‘the staff’ a collective presence that comes and goes. The kids do not go home at the end of each day. Especially not this one. The girl is wearing Doc Marten boots. She is reading A Clockwork Orange.
On the last few pages the girl finds her body colluding with the text. There is a low feeling of electricity coming off the page. Momentum gathers toward the part of A Clockwork Orange that is somehow the most shocking — the protagnist Alex — who has committed heinous violence and been dealt with in the most brutal and futuristic manner — is the exact same age as her.
The girl puts down the book.
She has been altered.
A Clockwork Orange attached itself to my fifteen-year old life and delivered a series of electronic volts.
I am that girl, who later grew up and became a published novelist and poet. It takes a lot to shock me in real life and also in literature. I have lived through so many extreme circumstances that I am extraordinarily hard to impress in that way. A Clockwork Orange attached itself to my fifteen-year old life and delivered a series of electronic volts not dissimilar to those experienced by Alex, when he goes through his rehabilitation process.
The first part of the book sees Alex as leader of a gang of droogs — teenage criminals. His cronies comprised of Dim, Pete and Georgie. They drink drug-laced milk in the Korova Milk bar and another establishment called the Duke of New York.
The droogs speak to each other in a slang language called nadsat. A Clockwork Orange‘s slang dialect steals elements of Russian and Cockney English. I loved the unfamiliarity of nadsat. As I began to read A Clockwork Orange I had the amazing realisation that I could understand everything these boys said in nadsat. It was my first experience of discovering dialogue that was not in straight English but could still be understood by anyone. As a young Scottish girl who was not taught how to write in Scottish dialect, or use the spellings of my own dyadic working-class tongue — this particular experience would prove pivotal when I sat down to write my first fiction novel some years later.
Alex defies convention at every turn. He listens to Classical music, loudly, a lot. He likes to read the Bible. He is an unlikeable protagonist who relishes the disgust he generates. His penchant for violence is underlined by an absolute lack of remorse. He is undaunted by State and society — he merely tolerates what he considers to be the idiocy of adults.
His rehabilitation process in prison is Ludovico’s technique and it is so successful that Alex is released from prison after two years. He can’t see violence anymore without becoming physically sick. He is immobilised by rehabilitive conditioning. He can’t listen to classical music anymore as he associates it with his prior violent history. He has been declawed and sent out into a world as a harmless and defenceless citizen.
Revenge is visited upon Alex by Dim and Billy boy who have become police officers. They beat him brutally. Alex tries to get help and comes across the husband of the woman who had died from injuries the droogs inflicted years earlier. The man is a political dissident. Alex goes through final stages of torment being used as a tool against the State and by them. Finally he wants to have a normal life with a wife and family.
I loathed Alex.
I was utterly compelled to read his story.
I found the black and white nature of Burgess’s approach to the moral nature of violent teenagers claustrophobic and repellent. The unrepentent portrayal of a young psychopath was also extraordinarily powerful.
I was a teenager who had experience of the world Burgess wrote about and I was still living in it when I read this book. I did not feel intimidated by Burgess’s vision. It irritated me. It frustrated me. It got under my skin. I was impressed.
A Clockwork Orange generated a multiplicity of responses in me as a reader. I left this novel expecting a higher standard both in my own writing, which I did every day even then and also in any dystopian books I would read in the future.
A Clockwork Orange marries its futuristic dystopian narrative with identifiable issues from modern society to devastating affect.
It was the first novel of its kind to affect my vision as a reader and more importantly for me, as a writer. When I wrote The Panopticon years later, it was a book that was still vaguely on my mind.
PIECE PUBLISHED in UNBOUND WORLDS – http://www.unboundworlds.com
Jenni Fagan knows what it’s like to be an outsider. It’s a trait she shares with many of her characters, including the heroine of her 2013 debut, The Panopticon. That novel follows the prickly Anais Hendricks as she maneuvers the foster care system in the UK, a childhood reality Fagan also weathered. When the book opens, Anais has just arrived at a juvenile delinquent center for putting a cop in a coma—a crime she cannot remember committing. Voice-driven, acerbic, and sharp, the novel earned Fagan a coveted spot on Granta’s prestigious Best Young British Novelists list, along with powerhouses like Sarah Hall and Helen Oyeyemi.
While Fagan’s latest couldn’t be further from the all-seeing eye of The Panopticon, she says she was still very much thinking of fringe culture while writing The Sunlight Pilgrims. A gritty survival tale set in the not-too-distant-future, The Sunlight Pilgrims takes place in a caravan park in Northern Scotland. Thanks to melting sea ice, temperatures fall to inhospitable levels, and the residents of the caravan park are especially vulnerable.
As the days grow colder, newcomer Dylan, grieving the loss of his mother and grandmother, befriends Stella, a transgender teen, and her survivalist mother, Constance. All three characters must learn how to navigate challenging emotional landscapes, even as the physical world—portrayed as both beautiful and deadly—shifts under their feet. For a tale about the end of the world and the brutality of nature, The Sunlight Pilgrims is human, intimate, and weirdly hopeful.
Fighting the time difference between the U.S. and the UK, I spoke with Jenni via phone while still on my first cup of coffee (she was well into her afternoon). We discussed climate change, Brexit, the origins of Stella, and outsider modes of art.
Did you set out to tackle climate change in the novel, to make it part of the setting and the thrust of the story, or did it sneak up on you?
No. I didn’t want to write a climate change novel at all. I was thinking about light, the quality of light, and how we interact with light. I had had two quite close bereavements and a baby all in a short space of time. So I was thinking about light, and I was thinking about mortality, how we incorporate grief in our life. We look for light in darkness. We look for light in all things. So really that’s what I started out with.
I came back to Scotland from London, where I had been living for quite awhile. And I kept remembering these really extreme winters when I was a child—I lived in a caravan for quite awhile when I was a kid at one point—and I remembered having very extreme Scottish winters in rural areas. I moved back expecting to have one of these winters, and it never happened. I missed the last big winter here by one year. The year before I moved back, they had to get the Army out to clear the streets so people could get milk and bread and that sort of thing. And since I moved back there hasn’t been another extreme winter.
I was looking for an opportunity to inhabit these landscapes personally and artistically. Quite often the two things merged. If I wanted to write something about climate change, I’m far more likely to write an article or a thesis or a campaign. Certainly it’s not a subject that can be ignored or should be ignored, but it wasn’t the founding purpose of the book.
As the book began to progress, and I realized it was going to tap into these Ice Age conditions, I began to meet with meteorologists and research what was going on in the global community regarding climate change. I’m always intrigued by the way that modern life is designed to detract from the fact that we’re living on a planet, and our lives our very short. I really felt that when people are living to extremes, they can no longer afford to ignore that. So really, artistically, that was the thing that intrigued me most.
At least in the beginning of the novel, the bureaucracies of the village are still functioning, so we haven’t been thrown into complete chaos yet. There’s a sense of normalcy that helps ground the book in a recognizable reality. How did you strike a balance between the day-to-day and extraordinary in the book?
I was fully aware that I could have immersed myself in the Arctic chaos that is going to ensue right across Europe. The characters in this novel, they see parts of it, but they’re very removed from the cities, they’re very removed even from the village. They’re very much on the edge, and because they’ve always been on the edge, they’re probably better suited to just getting on with it. Certainly Constance, the mother, is a natural survivalist, and she doesn’t want to freak her child out. She doesn’t see that there’s anything to be gained in running around being dramatic about it, so she knuckles down and gets on with it.
People live through extreme circumstances all the time. And they don’t always go out and loot their neighbor’s house or shoot somebody or any of those things. But quite often people are just still doing life. They still have to eat, they still have to wash their clothes, they still have to look outside the window and think, “I wonder if I’ll make it to the end of this year.” At the end of the day, nobody really knows that. We all live with great uncertainties in our own lives and in the world. And that’s just become more extreme, I think, and more publicly discussed, over the last five years. That is one of the main questions of the book: how do you live your life well in uncertainty? How do you live well and stay true to your identity?
We do live on a planet, and the weather conditions that we’ve had over the last 10,000 years have been pretty unusual. Humans have enjoyed relative stability in some ways, and obviously each year we see more and more disasters happening. We live on a planet, and planets are massively changeable. Our impact on them is huge, and we’re collectively getting to the point where we can’t ignore that anymore. We shouldn’t have been ignoring that in the first place.
There’s something really hopeful about the way characters discuss the possibility of survival, right up until the end of the book.
They choose to accept what’s happening. If they were different kinds of people, if they had different philosophies, they might fight it more. They’re not so shocked that [death] would happen. And being in a position of acceptance doesn’t mean you’re without hope. People have survived Ice Age conditions. They are all still hoping they will get through it. I often think of winter as the other main character in this book. Dylan’s completely besotted with the landscape. And it’s beautiful, stunning. But deadly, utterly deadly.
When your book published in America, Brexit had just happened. Did the politics in the book and the politics in real life resonate for you at all?
Of course Brexit happened here long after the book came out in the UK, so it didn’t feel as connected. We’re seeing a huge flux in populations, now more than ever, because of war or famine or climate change. The book has an awareness of people being in transition—and you can’t not engage with [that reality] as an artist or a writer. The question of what happens when people are denied safety or denied basic human rights is hugely important. These things always feed into my writing. I think writers, musicians, and artists are always filtering politics through basic, staple emotions. Art and literature, in particular, are a place to have these conversations. There’s something about fiction, about the imagination having free reign that isn’t afforded in real life, that makes this possible.
I was interested to learn that you’re both a poet and a novelist. Do these modes of writing inform one another, or are they quite separate?
They definitely inform one another. I recently published a book of poems, The Dead Queen of Bohemia. It’s 120 poems collected over time. I find when I’m writing a novel, I have to curb the poetry, I have to strip the words back. I write, as many people do, in a sort of stream of consciousness. I touch type, so it’s really just pure brain to the page. The image [in Sunlight Pilgrims] of “a woman polishes the moon” I lifted from a poem. Sometimes it’s a line, a theme, or imagery from my poetry that becomes a whole novel.
I don’t believe in literary monogamy. Every time I try out a new form, I gain a skillset to take back to other forms. I was a playwright for quite a long time, and it helped me learn dialogue. Now when I read a novel written by a playwright, I can always tell. There’s a stripped back quality, allowing yourself to be avant garde, to not be connected to traditional narrative forms. Every page in a play, every scene, has to be as clear as the others. When you’re writing a novel that’s 80,000 words you can’t just waffle for 40,000 of them.
So much of how you handle writing Stella’s transition is subtle and affirmative. Her narrative POV always uses gender terms like she/her. I even think about the first time Dylan sees Stella—she reads as female to him. I found that incredibly moving. How did you develop Stella’s character? What was it about the story of transitioning—or the contrast between a global change and a very personal one—that captivated you?
No, I don’t think like that. Stella just turned up on her bike, stripy tights, glittery nails, and she never stopped moving. She’s a character who’s had to fight for her own identity. She lives in fear in a small community. I grew up in care, and I identified as a child from care before I identified as myself because that’s how other people saw me. So that was my point of contact with her.
When I was younger I played in punk and grunge bands, which had a large LGBT community, so it wasn’t unfamiliar. Still, I did a lot of research because I wanted to make sure I got it right. I sent my manuscript to the writer Kate Bornstein, who edited Gender Outlaws, and I met with trans writers. And they were all like, “No, no, you’ve found her!” Ideas about gender are important to everyone; we’re all being forced into gender normative roles. But the thing I love about Stella is that it doesn’t define her. It’s not all of who she is.
In fact I was a bit hesitant to write her because of the last book. I thought, “Oh! Isn’t this a bit too close?” but I loved Stella’s relationship with Dylan. Both characters have been brought up by unconventional mothers. Stella, in her way, wants to rebel against her survivalist mother. She wants to get married and live in a house of bricks and be liked by other people. Constance doesn’t give much of a shit whether other people like her or not. When Dylan and Stella meet each other, Stella asks, “What about your dad?” and Dylan says, “My mum didn’t catch his name.” They both have to lay out their identities after being raised by such strong, unconventional women.
I was thinking quite a lot about the overlap between Stella and Anais, from your first novel, The Panopticon. They’re both spiky, young female narrators. What is it about the lives of young women who have been pushed to the fringes that captivates you? Is this territory you’ll return to?
I’ve really been writing the books I’ve wanted to read. I kept seeing fifteenyear-old girls in books who wore sparkly clothes and drank shandy and thought they didn’t resemble any of the girls I knew, or the women I’m friends with now. And I suppose in that sense I think like Patti Smith. She said the females were her muse.
All writers writing from the periphery are pointing toward the center. Because I grew up in the periphery, I think it makes you more observant of what’s going on in the culture. In my twenties and thirties, all the most vital and vibrant stories came from the periphery. Art house cinema, punk, New Wave, it all came from the fringes. I did a lot of research about the “Self” and “the Other” while writing this novel. In a sense, the periphery is a mirror, showing the center what it is. That’s why we’re artists, we’re responding to the center.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on two novels at the moment. Novel Three and Novel Four take place over 110 years, and in some ways Novel Four is really the last chapter of Novel Three. But you can read them separately or out of order. I’m trying to write the Great Edinburgh Novel. It’s a huge span of time to work in, and I hate historical fiction that doesn’t make each historical part feel vital to itself. We’re not the ones who invented sex or drugs; this stuff has been around for time immemorial. In fact, the third book is some of my darkest and most graphic, most sexual work. The character who opens that novel is also related to Gunn MacRae [from The Sunlight Pilgrims], so there are these slight nods to the other books.
I can’t hassle poems, I don’t mess with them. They might take a week or ten minutes to write, but great poems come out almost whole. With a novel, I’m riffing on something for 80 pages. I have a big space to look at a problem from all these different angles. I think a lot about when I used to make music. You would go into these dirty little rehearsal rooms and play for ten hours, twelve hours, and you keep doing it and keep doing it and that hopefully produces something. I try not to hold [a novel] too close. If you trust that artistic part of your brain, it’ll bring you the good shit.
Interview by Kirsten Evans at Brooklyn Magazine
Five Authors Jenni Fagan Would Invite to a Dinner Party
The author of The Sunlight Pilgrims picks her dream dinner dates.
First published by Read It Forward
BY JENNI FAGAN • 4 DAYS AGO
If you could invite five famous authors—dead or living—to dinner, who would you choose, and what would you serve? Today on Read it Forward, novelist Jenni Fagan hosts the dinner party of her dreams. Salut!
I wish I’d spent time at Gertrude Stein’s extraordinary salon in Paris. She is a big influence on me. I would want to hear stories about all the painters she knew, how they arrived at automatism, what were the most banal and ordinary things she can recall of the surrealists, and who was the bravest? Also, I’d ask her if she ever used her wife Alice B. Toklas’s cookbook.
I am a fan of Nick’s prose and I truly adore him as a musician. A dinner party made solely of writers would be dreadful, so we need at least one person who can get on the piano, involve us all in a sing-a-long, and have us waltzing on the patio before dinner. And is it just me, or would he have the best jokes and stories? I’d want to know how he found all those eras and musicians, from no-wave and punk, to garage rock and lo-fi. And if he played The Ship Song at the end of the evening, I could, in all honesty, die happy.
I love Leonora for everything really—her painting, her prose, her politics, her astonishing life. I also love her quotes about writing: “The task of the right eye is to peer through the telescope, while the left eye peers into the microscope,” or another favorite, “People under seventy and over seven are unreliable if they are not cats.”
Reinaldo Arenas once said, “There’s just one place to live—the impossible.” He also said, “I have always considered it despicable to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living.” I would want to know everything; about his years incarcerated for being a gay man in Cuba under Castro’s regime; his move to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and his departure from Cuba on a boat for criminals, disabled or gay citizens; his lovers, his mother, his relationship to landscapes. His uprootedness and dislocation speak to me profoundly.
I happen to know that Helen Oyeyemi is not only one of the best writers of our time but also, the most charming dinner guest. The first time we met she told me about a clock in Prague that can tell the time on the moon, how she had grown obsessed with keys and also what was great and good in Korean horror movies. I’d polish my teapots and serve an array of teas in the early morning before they all went home, which I know she would appreciate.
The Paloma—a Mexican cocktail: ingredients—1/4 mezcal, 1/4 fresh grapefruit juice, wedge of lime & 1/4 soda, kosher salt, crushed ice. Run lime around the rim of the glass, dip in salt, mix your ingredients, add ice.
I am sure it is best to start a dinner party with drinks and dancing so you are more ready to sit, chat, eat later in the evening. Leonora Carrington spent most of her adult life in Mexico City, so I am hoping she might like this spirited start to the evening.
In honor of Reinaldo Arenas, I would make Cassava bread, made from cassava flour (great if you are Paleo), and serve with tapenade on the side and a piri piri sauce for dipping.
Selection of Spanish Tapas (vegetarian for Nick Cave)—black olives, Ajillo mushrooms, Habas ala Catalana (smothered broad beans with sausage), Espinacas Con Garbanzos (spinach and chickpeas), Alubias Verdes con Ajo (green beans with garlic).
These would be small dishes that are easy to pick at—just to take the edge off our Palomas and prepare us for the main course.
I’d also hope Reinaldo might bring a few nice Cuban cigars for later, I’m sure he’d appreciate a smoke on the patio late at night, as would Gertrude for that matter.
I’d like to cook a meal that is easy to serve and enjoy—so we can focus on chatting. I’d make paella, the first would be a vegetarian version and for the second, I’d add seafood and chorizo.
Ingredients: Fresh saffron from the market in Istanbul. Garlic, paprika, cayenne pepper, mushroom, peppers, chorizo, olive oil, scallops, black Irish mussels, free-range chicken, onion, tomatoes, peas, calamari, Calasparra paella rice.
This would not happen until much later. I have a feeling that after the last two courses, we’d all wander down a dark country road, have a look at the Milky Way in a starlit sky, have a few games of pool, or darts at the local pub—then head back to play music and dance. The garden would be lit by fireflies in jars. We’d have a selection of the finest Parisian patisserie cakes and I’d ask Gertrude about her favorite baker along the rue de Fleurus. I bet you she’d say Picasso had a sweet tooth.
And when all the food has been eaten:
Helen Oyeyemi lives in Prague and I’m sure she’d oblige with a bottle of plum brandy (Slivovitz—she knows where to get the good stuff) or perhaps a small absinthe, especially if we were on the cusp of an aurora that night, which I’d hope we would be. She’d be setting up a little outdoor cinema on the lawn, talking Nick Cave through the greatest Korean horror movies of all time, the porch would be wide and the weather mild, perhaps a stream nearby and a swing on a tall tree in the garden. I imagine Gertrude having a snooze on the porch under a blanket. Reinaldo telling me stories about the Cuban revolution and the grit of Hell’s Kitchen, and how his first novel was smuggled out of prison and over to Paris, the only place he could publish it at the time. Leonora would reminisce about founding the Women’s Liberation Movement in Mexico, her love affair with Max Ernst, running away from an asylum and creating a novel about her psychotic experience. We would discuss the extraordinary way she paints. Psychic freedom. Automatism. Surrealism. Keys. Clarity. Mirrors. We would chat all night in the garden where a rose, is a rose, is a rose.
Featured Image: Rawpixel/Shutterstock.com
BOOK REVIEW | FICTION-FRONT COVER of THE NEW YORK TIMES
A New Novel Envisions a Very Cold Environmental Future, Starting Now
By MARISA SILVER JULY 15, 2016
THE SUNLIGHT PILGRIMS
By Jenni Fagan
272 pp. Hogarth. $26.
As carbon dioxide levels rise, as humans create more and newer justifications for institutionalized murder and as lethal diseases ravage unsuspecting populations, writers respond. They bring us novels of the post-apocalypse — philosophical explorations of what the world might look like when the fraying center finally shears. Whether the approaches are starkly realistic or fancifully speculative, these visions generally posit an end-time far enough into an unrecognizable future that we can maintain our illusions of safety from the comfort of our reading chairs.
Jenni Fagan, the fierce and cleareyed Scottish writer, will have none of that. In her new novel, “The Sunlight Pilgrims,” she is committed to disrupting our ease by setting her story of impending cataclysm at a moment unnervingly near at hand. Fagan’s novel is set in 2020, and the world is familiar in every way but for one menacing difference: It is very, very cold.
The polar ice caps are melting, and the seas are rising. The mercury, as the story opens, is set at minus 6 degrees — colder than most of us regularly experience, but not unimaginable. And it is not so for the three characters who are the novel’s focus: Dylan, an unusually tall man who, at age 38, is grieving the back-to-back deaths of his mother and grandmother; Constance, a self-reliant survivalist; and her daughter, 12-year-old Stella, a transgender girl who is on the cusp of a puberty that, unless she is able to begin a course of hormone treatments, will deny her the external appearance that matches the girl she knows herself to be. Mother and daughter are part of an off-the-grid community of caravan dwellers who live just outside the fictional town of Clachan Fells in northern Scotland. Constance relishes her independence as well as her distance from the townspeople, who judge her harshly for carrying on open affairs with two men simultaneously, one of whom is Stella’s married father. Dylan, a Londoner, is an “incomer,” newly arrived having inherited a caravan from his mother. Cut off from any future he ever imagined and lacking in basic survival skills — he greets the deep freeze in a pair of thin-soled Chelsea boots — Dylan strikes up a friendship with Stella and Constance just as what is predicted to be the worst winter in 200 years descends over much of the planet.
Fagan’s novel balances the oncoming climate disaster with the human-scale stories of these characters, focusing especially on Stella, whose feelings about her sexual identity are refreshingly resolute. Her confidence about her girlhood, and the pleasure she takes in it, as well as the way she stands her ground when dealing with the hurtful rejection of schoolyard bullies, reveal that she possesses a kind of resilience that may serve her well in uncertain times. She is supported by her mother, although not by her birth father, a fact that causes her to hope for the romance between Constance and Dylan she senses brewing.
Stella’s intrepid and sometimes dangerous attempts at self-care, and her coming-of-age under the pressure of societal disapproval and global threat, are the emotional anchors of the narrative. The interior lives of the adults in the novel are not quite as precisely drawn. We don’t learn much more about Constance than that she is an adept survivor who keeps her emotional entanglements at a safe distance. Dylan is a somewhat unformed man whose lack of direction and self-knowledge might be ascribed to the fact that his lineage has been kept from him, information that he will uncover during the course of the novel and that he fears will threaten his relationship with Constance and Stella. This conventional narrative ruse — the unearthed secret — is not wholly persuasive in a book that admirably avoids melodrama, especially since the revelation does not have the weight of meaningful consequence. What does matter, and something Fagan handles with deceptively effortless prose, is the way in which ordinary, even banal, life dramas unfold while the existential noose is tightening. The girl’s sense of the dislocation is tender. “Her voice is sending her odd notes. Her body is becoming a strange instrument,” Fagan writes evocatively, and then, easing from the distanced poetry of the writer’s omniscience into the mind of this witty child, “Any day now a tiny man is going to set up a loudspeaker in her throat and his voice will make declarations in a baritone and everyone will think it is her speaking, but it won’t be.”
The mercury plummets, ultimately reaching an unfathomable and unsurvivable minus 56 degrees. As the days grow short and most of life must be spent inside the confines of a trailer, the claustrophobia Stella feels inside a body that might soon betray her is mirrored by what is happening in the world. When she takes an ill-advised bike ride into the freezing weather, we feel not only her physical desire to break out of her trailer home but also her desperation to escape the gender she was born into. Fagan joyfully summons the sheer jubilance of the girl’s physical power as well as her fear when she realizes she’s out of her depth in the freeze. The evocation of that maturational tipping point where wisdom trumps desire is one of the novel’s wrenching explorations. There is so much for this young girl to lose. That she receives news of frozen bodies and devouring sinkholes, of food shortages and economic collapse from the internet makes her isolation that much more devastating. A young Italian transgendered man who is Stella’s online consigliere suddenly disappears from the web, and we, like Stella, can only wonder if he has fallen victim to the freeze.
“The Sunlight Pilgrims” is a stylistically quieter novel than Fagan’s bravura debut, “The Panopticon” — a fiery and voice-driven effort that landed her on Granta’s 2013 list of the best British novelists under 40 years old — but it is no less critical in its portrayal of marginalized people under the pressure of society’s norms. When Stella and her mother visit a doctor in hopes of getting Stella started on hormone therapy, the unhelpful man suggests antidepressants. At a community meeting, the nuns who run Stella’s school, and who do nothing to support or accommodate the girl’s gender transition, greet the oncoming freeze with educational leaflets and announcements about community preparedness plans including “ideas on how to insulate and heat your homes,” information that will be useless when the temperature drops and resources become scarce. At the meeting’s closing prayer, “Stella gazes around at the bended heads and Mother Superior is looking at her . . . and there is a faint distaste in her eyes.” It is easy to imagine that this young, marginalized girl and her anti-authoritarian mother will get no special help from their local church, insulation or otherwise. The difference in the argument from Fagan’s first novel to her second is that with the world tipping into disaster, intolerance will seem like a petty thing. No one, not even those who hew to ideas of perceived “normalcy,” will be spared. In this way, the satire in this novel is even sharper. A church that largely recoils from embracing difference can do nothing when it comes to protecting the earth from human abuses and vanities.
Fagan is a poet as well as a novelist, and many of her images of this unbidden winter are shot through with lyric beauty. Early on, we are told that in this worst of winters “icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks or the long bony finger of winter herself.” Later, when the threesome venture out of the caravan to witness an iceberg’s arrival, they observe “all those peaked figures of ice, like all of their ancestors have been caught by the elements on the long walk home, their souls captured by ice and snow, and below them the North Sea cracks and groans as ice floes creak and collide.” Strange beauty can be found in destruction, and Fagan is fearless and wise to allow her characters to be as entranced by nature’s awesome power as they are terrified of it. The mythic reach of such imagery mirrors the way Fagan overlays elements of the tribal onto the quotidian. The novel’s three central characters are as much recognizable humans as they are visitations from a folk narrative. Dylan is an orphaned giant whose mother, to obscure his troubling lineage, told him he was the product of a fallen angel and a mortal woman. To ward off the worst of the chill, Constance frequently dons the pelt and preserved head of a wolf, so at times she seems a strange hybrid. Stella is a double, both a boy and a girl. The local lore about the sunlight pilgrims of the novel’s title tells of a race who drink light to live through the darkest times. But Fagan does not use metaphor as poetic immunity for her characters or her readers. The novel leaves them — and us — in a deeply troubling and unresolved moment. The world looks like a place of our darkest imagination, but it is all too real.