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15 June 2016

Cold comforts: exploring the uncertainty of climate change through fiction

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan reviewed.

By Ben Myers

Of the main narratives of our time – terror, global recession, mass displacement, climate change – it is the slow-melting, forest-felling effects of this fourth factor that pose perhaps the greatest threat to humanity. Markets rise and fall and blood-hungry despots come and go, but Mother Nature will only stand for so much abuse. And so it follows that environmental disaster is increasingly informing emerging fiction in original ways.

It is against the backdrop of a freakishly cold winter – in which icebergs drift into British waters, Morocco is under snow and flakes fall over Britain with an air of malevolence – that the Scottish writer Jenni Fagan has chosen to set her second novel. Her first, the acclaimed The Panopticon, was an assured debut that cast an eye over a contemporary care system from the perspective of an errant teenage protagonist who had been entirely failed by society. Fagan is drawn to those who exist on the outer reaches, and in The Sunlight Pilgrims it is in the literal margins – a sub-zero caravan park in an unspecified semi-rural corner of Scotland – where a broader and yet more refined collection of voices is drawn together.

The uncertainty of climate change sets the tone, in prose that sparkles from the first page:

What did we expect? Icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks, or the long bony finger of winter herself. There will be frost flowers. Penitentes. Blin drift. Owerblaw. Skirlie. Eighre. Haar-frost.

Yet The Sunlight Pilgrims is about the confluence of characters searching to fill the gaps in their lives; a story of the symbolic shifting of tectonic plates within people and the thawing of icy exchanges, rather than those physical changes in the wider world. It is about desiring escape from imprisonment of circumstance, during a perpetual winter that Fagan describes in passages that chill to the marrow.

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In the transgender 11-year-old Stella, a budding Goth with a fondness for striped tights, we have an engaging protagonist whose isolation is mental, physical and geographical, yet who is imbued with a survivalist’s steely resolve – reminiscent of the eponymous narrator of Morvern Callar, and Frank Cauldhame of The Wasp Factory. Indeed, it is somewhere between Alan Warner and Iain Banks that Fagan’s storytelling ability sits, the grit of her familial backstories and dysfunctional relationships dusted with the glitter of magical realism. Stella lives with her mother, Constance, who, in a perfect juxtaposition of the drab domestic with the ethereal, is first spotted by the urbane Dylan, a newcomer to the caravan park, reaching to polish the moon with a rag. Here, too, there are shades of Margaret Atwood’s depictions of altered realities.

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Between log-chopping and gin-distilling sessions, bonds form between Stella, the polyamorous Constance and the bohemian Dylan who, grieving the recent loss of his mother, grandmother and the fading Soho art-house cinema that they collectively ran, is woefully underprepared for a harsh winter in the caravan that was bequeathed to him. Only then does his family history become apparent. Elsewhere, huddled around their wood-burners in snowbound caravans are an ensemble of small-town Satanists, a prostitute and Barnacle, an old man bent double by the burdens of life.

Faced with a changing body that is increasingly alien to her, Stella may occasionally speak lines a little too precocious for one her age, yet it’s to Fagan’s credit that she refuses to allow her to be entirely defined by being transgender. She is a heroic young person battling the prejudices of her peers. The chief strength of the book, though, is the elemental descriptions. In heightened poetic prose, Fagan does for rural Scottish fiction what Kathleen Jamie is doing in poetry and Amy Liptrot in non-fiction: evocatively documenting the ever-changing daily drama of the landscape. The most dominant presence is that of winter.

As temperatures plummet to minus 56 degrees and the world enters a new Ice Age, Stella navigates the hormonal pitfalls of pubescence as she considers the story of the sunlight pilgrims, from the “islands furthest north”, who teach you to “drink light right down into your chromosomes, then in the darkest minutes of winter, when there is a total absence of it, you will glow and glow and glow”. This is a novel about ­summoning hidden strengths and finding one’s place in a universe defined by chaos. 

Ben Myers’s Beastings (Bluemoose Books) won the 2015 Portico Prize for fiction

The Sunlight Pilgrims is Jenni Fagan is published by William Heinemann, (310pp, £12.99).

This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe