A harsh and unprecedented winter is about to overtake the earth, resulting in chaos across the globe. Three characters, Dylan, Constance, and Stella, are neighbors in a caravan park in Scotland. Together, they live as the temperature falls to -65, as a massive iceberg approaches the coast, as people go mad and modern comforts disappear. Read my First Look here.
The Sunlight Pilgrims explores how the three main characters, and people in general, respond to change and despair. The story begins at the end of fall, as the unending winter approaches. Stella, a young teenager, has recently begun to live publicly as a girl in their small rural community. Her mother Constance, never a ‘fall in line’ type of woman anyway, is working to make sure Stella grows up happy and safe in a community that doesn’t quite understand transgenderism or Constance’s own unconventional romantic life. Dylan, a grieving cinophile from the city moves into a neighboring caravan.As the sunlight fades to just a few hours a day, and the temperatures go deep in the negatives, the caravan park is thrown into isolation. Dylan wrestles with grief, Constance tries her best to be a good mother and provider, and Stella works to come to terms with her growing gender dysphoria as she enters puberty. As the community tries to survive, a close bond grows between the three neighbors as they come to rely on one another for safety, company, and human compassion. The characters process their personal problems and the impending climate disaster in myriad ways- with ignorance and denial, stunned fear, research, with acts of bravery and compassion, with sadness, determination, joy, and trust.Fagan does an excellent job of painting scenes, and some moments in this book have an air of magical realism. I live in a climate that regularly reaches -40 in the winter, and she did an excellent job of conveying how the cold is both mundane and deadly, how the people that live in it manage to acclimate and even appreciate the beauty that comes with blizzards, frost flowers, and the silence of heavy snowfall. Vivid moments- Constance’s wolf-pelt coat, Dylan’s large frame folding under the small caravan table, the viewing of the Northern Lights, Stella’s awesome sled down the cow hill- were each perfectly wrought and will last with me a long time.
“…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.”
The “Sunlight Pilgrims” of the title is an important component of the story and I won’t spoil it– but it is a concept that felt particularly meaningful to me reading in early 2017, as I processed our own impending dark. We all struggle with keeping hope in cold and lonely times, and this book has something of a remedy in store for readers. There were moments, like the quote above, that I desperately needed this January.
The one thing that lacked for me was the pacing and resolution. It felt a bit overlong; moments of little eventual concern were lingered heavily over for a reason I couldn’t determine, while momentous occasions that were ripe for character processing were glossed over quickly. There was some lag for me in the middle end, and the final paragraph left me frustrated at the lack of resolution. I don’t usually feel this way, but this end really felt incomplete both in plot and in character development.
I have not yet found a review of this book written by a trans person, so if anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to link to them in my review. From my limited perspective, Fagan did a nice job of portraying Stella’s life, struggles, and strengths without relying too heavily on stereotypes or problematic representations. Stella’s trans identity is only a component of a well-rounded character. Stella is full of energy, fashion sense, sarcasm, and hope, and is the type of proud young woman I wish I’d been more like in my early teens.
If you have Cheimatophobia, probably skip this one. If you’re looking for a quiet but surprisingly lush, sensual story about human resilience and companionship, pick this one up (I also recommended Station Eleven, one of my top books in 2016). If you want to read a story about two flawed and brave adults who still love and stand up beside a trans child, this one’s for you.
Scent Notes: Wolf fur, gin whispers, and cold metal