The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan


  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth (July 19, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553418874
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553418873


The Sunlight Pilgrims is Fagan’s second novel, following her much-lauded The Panopticon, a novel about a teenage girl named Anais who, following a childhood spent bouncing between dozens of foster families, is sent to a live in a home for chronic young offenders. Anais’s arrest record is long, including hundreds of offenses. Thrown together with offenders of all stripes, The Panopticon tells the story of a group of equally damaged young people who form a family of sorts.

About writing a second novel following a very successful debut, Fagan writes:

panopticonThe second novel is always difficult and I certainly found that to be true. I had to ignore what anyone else thought to a certain extent. I knew it was a risk in some ways to write a novel that was quite different to my debut but there is not point to writing for me, unless I am willing to put something on the line, emotionally, intellectually or otherwise. I loved spending time in the world of The Sunlight Pilgrims, it was difficult and challenging but I wanted to be there. 


The Sunlight Pilgrims, similar to her first book, features a main character struggling outside the mainstream, this time a transgender teen who’s reinvented himself as a girl named Estelle/Stella. Prejudice is a large part of Stella’s experience, as classmates in the fictional small village of Clachan Fells in the Highlands of Scotland cast her out, lifelong friends turned vicious enemies.

It’s the year 2020,  global warming now a dangerous and lethal force threatening to freeze over the globe. An iceberg the size of a house drifts into the bay at Clachan Fells, locals equally transfixed and terrified about what it portends. Snowfalls creep up the sides of homes, burying cars and killing people through white-out storms, as temperatures plummet below – 48 F. Local emergency facilities are set up, villagers scrambling to keep each other alive.

In the midst of the chaos transpires the inevitable conceit of a love story. Tall, dark and handsome Dylan MacCrae, whose mother had bought a caravan in this remote village for reasons he doesn’t immediately understand, moves to Clachan Fells following the deaths of both his mother and grandmother, in rapid succession. Carrying their ashes, he leaves behind the family movie theatre that’s gone bust, looking for a new life in Scotland.

Immediately  he and Stella’s mother fall in love, to the great joy of Stella, who wished this from the moment she met their new neighbor – a conventional, “fated” moment allowing for some rather cringe-inducing prose:


Dylan tries to be subtle about watching Constance, but it is compulsive. It’s like watching a fire. She is the fire and her daughter the wind – howling long the rooftops, rattling at his windows all last night, warning him she could blow his house down and it is not a house, it is a caravan – d.e.n.i.a.l.. It’s not a river in Egypt, that’s what the kid would say.


It’s like Wuthering Heights, only cheesy. The land is windswept and menacing, the handsome man insanely in love with the beautiful woman on first sight. Then Fagan starts writing high-flown prose about love, and it all falls apart. As dramatic writing, it doesn’t work. As dramatic writing with an attempt at humor thrown in, it’s like watching a train wreck – or reading about one, in this case.

The killer winter is terrifying, but at the same time there’s a certain beauty to it. Aside from the awesome iceberg, the illusion of a triple sun – known as a “sun dog” – thrills the small community. As there’s nothing to be done to prevent the weather, the villagers flock to see this natural phenomenon, the one literal bright spot in the ever-increasing dark of a long, lethal winter.

If the world is going to end, they may as well take in the awesome spectacle in the time they have left.

Sun Dogs - illusion of three suns appearing in the sky

Sun Dogs – illusion of three suns appearing in the sky

Despite ominous threats to the lives of the characters , the plot is disappointingly lacking in urgency. What she does well is interweave complex plot lines, juggling multiple characters and their stories. What she doesn’t do as well is pull taut the strings, to maintain forward momentum. She left room for just enough sway to let the reader’s attention drift – the crucial dividing line between a good novel and a great one.

Fagan also descends into moments of purple prose, overwritten passages that derail the book. The world around them is doomed, yet her characters at times bounce around like Tigger. The effect is jarringly inconsistent. This is not quite a romance, not quite post-apocalpytic, lacking definitive purpose.

The Sunlight Pilgrims could have used one, last really tough edit which it unfortunately did not get. In the end, the support structure just wasn’t there. Maybe there was too much pressure to produce a great second novel, maybe she felt rushed. Whatever the reason, The Sunlight Pilgrims is an okay book with moments of very good prose, just not enough to tip the balance.


A Sunday Commonplace

Books mentioned in this post:

Review copies:

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – finished

Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernieres

The Past by Tessa Hadley

The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland by Rory Stewart

Mercury by Margot Livesey

The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano (transl: Mark Polizzotti)


Victorian Bloomsbury by Rosemary Ashton

Every Single Minute by Hugo Hamilton

Current reading:

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

Recently finished:

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by DG Compton

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – review to come


As autumn rolls in, I imagine reading in front of a roaring fire, while orange and red and yellow leaves drift languidly to the ground outside my picture window framed by heavy velvet drapes, a bottomless cup of coffee at my elbow, a loyal dog at my slipper-clad feet. The unfortunate reality is I live in an 80s vintage apartment building sans fireplace, count myself lucky when I have clean clothes – not daring to dream anything matches – and the closest I get to open flame is candles I own but seldom burn, partly because I have two cats with not enough sense between them to avoid setting themselves – and my apartment – on fire.

And the dream goes *POOF*

No leather armchairs reeking of wealth indenting oriental rugs, no polished mahogany bookshelves crammed with leather bindings, no crackling and popping of exploding sap, no scent of seasoned logs licked by fire… Just a suburban apartment  furnished half by The Room Place, half by Target (which sells serviceable books shelves at really great prices, by the way).

One does what one must, which doesn’t stop one from bitching about it the whole time.

Fall is my favorite season. Fleeting though it is, I hope to make some time to enjoy it: shuffling through the leaves, carving pumpkins, feeling the crisp air that reddens the cheeks, the annual pulling out of the sweaters. I’ve always loved the colors most, then the smells of what I know is actually decay in preparation for the hibernation of winter, but still it’s the best and most glorious time of year.

I look forward to it all as October arrives.


At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost. – Rainer Maria Rilke


Before I go any further, I have to admit a most embarrassing truth: I’ve purchased and received several – okay many, many – books over the course of the past two weeks that I’d love to list here for posterity, however, in the process of quick-cleaning my apartment I tossed them onto random shelves and can scarcely tell what’s new and what’s been here for years. I’m sitting here looking at the fruits of my labor, semi-pleased with myself for having made the place look remotely habitable, and though I could perhaps paw through the stacks and stacks and stacks in order to locate every recent book purchase or advance copy, I’ve scattered them to the extent it would be a challenge.

This is when you know – in case it hadn’t already dawned – you own an awful lot of books. And by awful, I mean tremendously wonderful, mind-blowingly awesome numbers of them.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a serious discrepancy between numbers of books arriving and those making the “finished” list. Of late, both my credit card and the review fairy have been rather generous, which I assume to mean I’ve been extraordinarily deserving, as what other explanation could there be?

Victorian Bloomsbury

Victorian Bloomsbury

Today, Bloomsbury means Virginia Woolf and her coevals but, as Ashton shows so vividly, it was the district’s reputation as a centre of intellectual life that in reality drew the “Bloomsberries”: they didn’t create the area, the area created them. – Judith Flanders



Also with the onset of fall comes a certain desire for a bit of more planned, structured reading, possibly because it’s the start of the academic year, which in my formative days meant assigned books and syllabi. Tossing around a few ideas, one I’ve settled upon is a planned reading of a mystery series. An embarrassing number of hours frittered away spent Amazon researching later, I decided to go with a series suggested by one of my favorite Scots, Chris of Morse, Lewis and Endeavour,  who tipped me off about Scottish mystery writer Christopher Brookmyre.


Christopher Brookmyer

Christopher Brookmyre

The best source for Brookmyre’s books – price and availability-wise – is a shop in the UK,  so I placed an Amazon order for the first three titles to make sure I like them well enough before buying the full series:

Quite Ugly One Morning

Country of the Blind

Not the End of the World

I considered lots of series mysteries before making my decision, including: works of Ngaio Marsh, the Maisie Dobbs series, Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher novels, all the popular Scandinavian noir writers, among loads of others. What lead me to go with Brookmyre was the promise of a rather off-beat and quirky style, different from the sort of grim mysteries I normally gravitate toward – though no promises I won’t turn back to those before winter snows thaw.

It was partly to counter the grim nature of the frozen winter that I chose this series, which sounds quirky in a way that’s not cringe-inducingly precious. Because I despise cloying prose.

Quite Ugly One Morning is the book that made Christopher Brookmyre a star in his native Britain, establishing his distinctive, scabrously humorous style and breakneck, hell-for-leather narrative pacing … Quite Ugly One Morning introduces Brookmyre’s signature protagonist, the hard-partying, wisecracking investigative journalist Jack Parlabane, who is not afraid to bend the laws of the land (or even the laws of gravity) to get to the truth … Laced with acerbic wit and crackling dialogue, Quite Ugly One Morning is a wickedly entertaining and vivacious thriller.  – Amazon blurb

I’d like to decide on another course of planned reading, though what I don’t know. It’s a delicate balance as I read and review advance copies, sneaking in a few titles from my own collection in between. And always the postman brings more.

Though he doesn’t ring twice. It’s a myth.

In reading, I’ve just finished Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims, for review later this week. Current advance copy reading is Matt Bell’s A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a thick book of short stories, and one of several half-started volumes lying on the bed next to me or on the table beside the bed.

I’m between books for the most part, too overwhelmed by the wealth of riches to have settled on anything outside Bell’s book. No wonder, considering the tide coming in, but by the end of this evening I should have a clearer picture of my reading week, and what’s to come through the rest of the month.

In the not too distant future, it will be time to wrap up My Reading Year, 2016. But that gives me a headache. I think I have enough to keep my hands from becoming too idle in the meantime.

Among other things, I can search for my new books to name in my next round up. Yes, I think that’s the goal I’ll set for myself. Big enough without being too overwhelming.

And a very happy October to all.