The premise of Jenni Fagan’s 2016 novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, is entirely plausible: in the not-so-far-off future of November 2020, winter has descended upon the globe, the Gulf Stream is both slowing and cooling, a gigantic iceberg is making its way from Norway to Scotland, and the Thames is overflowing from the extra water created by melting polar ice caps. Rather than focus on climatologists or environmental and economic protestors, however, Fagan presents three average people and the ways their lives intertwine and change as they try to survive the worst winter on record.
Until recently, Dylan McRae lived in a Soho art-house movie theatre with his mother and grandmother, distilling homemade gin and sharing the joys of classic cinema with their dwindling patrons. Both women have died, unfortunately, and the theatre is under foreclosure, so Dylan packs their ashes in with the few belongings he can’t leave behind and makes his way north to a caravan park in Clachan Fells, Scotland. The park is home to all sorts of misfits, including survivalist Constance Fairbairn and her transgender daughter Stella, who adopt Dylan as a kindred spirit and help him prepare his rickety caravan for a winter that grows colder and more dangerous with each passing day. As the news fills with global reports of weather-related disaster, food supplies run scarce, and people freeze to death in their very homes, the trio cope with their personal demons and find joy in surprising moments.
Fagan fills The Sunlight Pilgrims with intricate details that pull the reader into the text: curlicues of frost on a windowpane; the sparkle of ice on a corpse’s eyelashes; the weak warmth of mid-winter sunlight; the petty ways a tightly-knit community lashes out against outsiders and lifelong members who refuse to conform. The most visceral details appear as winter encroaches deeper and deeper into daily life, altering and perverting normalcy with only the faintest hope of eventual reprieve. Constance and Stella are prepared to survive nearly any situation, stocking up firewood and tins of food, but survival isn’t the same as living, and as the days become shorter and darker, their attempts to adapt and thrive are both admirable and pitiable. Dylan, cast adrift from his familiar life and struggling to adjust to increasingly strange circumstances beyond anyone’s control, may be the easiest character for readers to identify with, though Fagan gives equal attention to Constance’s attempts to give her daughter a good life and Stella’s struggles to reconcile her mental identity with her pre-teen body’s unwelcome changes.
The Sunlight Pilgrims is at once melancholy and hopeful, presenting humans in all their fallible and flawed glory. Recommended for fans of climate fiction, in particular, though fans of near-future science fiction are sure to enjoy it as well.