"The Sunlight Pilgrims" by Jenni Fagan
I like disaster films.
Honestly, the plot doesn’t even have to be good.
I’ve seen Armageddon several dozen times. The Poseidon Adventure (both the original and the remake) at least 10 times each. I’ve even watched and re-watched San Andreas.
While it’s hard to explain, I think the draw has something to do with the struggle and the honesty of these tales. I like to see how shifting into survival mode changes these characters. It feels like, when they’re stripped bare of all of the extra stuff that they previously considered essential, we see who they really are.
That said, I was primed to enjoy this novel because it is, at its core, a disaster story. Sure, it’s not one that would star The Rock. Nothing exploded and there are no last minute escapes that are as implausible as they are satisfying.
In fact, there is no escape at all.
It’s the end of the world, and there’s just no escapin’ that.
The book opens in the not-so-distant future – 2020, to be exact – with Dylan, a 30-something Londoner who’s lived his whole life in a small art house cinema that his grandmother, single and pregnant with his mother at the time, won in a poker game.
Just as a human-induced ice age bears down on the planet, both his hard-as-nails grandmother and his doting mother die.
This is fucking horrible luck for Dylan, as the literal end of the world is for sure the shittiest of shitty times to be alone. But alone he is.
Despite the fact that pretty much everyone else is heading south in an attempt to survive, Dylan heads north. He honestly doesn’t have much choice because, not long after his grandmother and mother die, he finds out that the bank is going to seize the cinema. His only option is to make his new home in a trailer his mother, knowing that the bank was going to take the theater, purchased before her death.
Because, you know, trailers are so well-insulated and known for standing up against the most extreme temperatures.
Dylan’s initial plan is to take his grandmother’s and mother’s ashes up to this trailer, which isn’t far from where his grandmother grew up, spread the ashes, sell the trailer and go somewhere… tropical.
That plan changes pretty much immediately when, on his first night in the trailer, he sees Constance, an enigmatic single mother who also calls the trailer park home.
Constance ekes out a meager living refinishing and reselling furniture that she salvages from the town dump. Her daughter, Stella, was born a son she originally named Cael.
From the moment we meet Stella, she replaced Dylan as the central character in the novel.
Her struggle and her journey become the focus and, suddenly, it’s not the impending expiration of our planet that propelled the plot in this book.
Instead, it’s the coming of age of a teen, who is dealing with her status as a transgender individual, in this excessively small Scottish town.
One thing that I truly appreciated about this book was the fact that, while certainly essential to the plot and how it progressed, Stella’s status as a transgender individual was revealed both surprisingly and matter-of-factly.
None of the dust jacket material I have read regarding this book even makes mention of Stella being transgender, and I appreciate that. Yes, Stella is transgender and yes, logically, that has a major impact on her life – but that’s not all she is.
Another strength of this novel was the intensely satisfying way in which Fagan used language to tell her tale. Her prose was almost poetic, making it truly pleasing to read.
Given these strengths, until about half way through the book, I was really into it – like, to the point where I was talking about the book to people who really didn’t give a shit about it…sometimes against their will.
Honestly, though, I shouldn’t start touting a book before I finish.
It seems like, as soon as I get all amped about how good a book is going to be, it takes a nosedive and ends up crashing.
And, sadly, this book wasn’t an exception to the rule.
First off, we learn about half way through the book that Dylan has a connection to Constance – one that he chooses to keep secret because he thinks revealing it will hurt his chances of becoming romantically involved with her.
The thing is, the “connection” described just wasn’t a big deal. It definitely didn’t warrant the pages of struggle and stress the author detailed.
Like, the world is literally fucking ending… the shit you’re worried about is the definition of no big deal.
The paramount struggle I had with this book, though, pertained to the point of the novel.
As I read on, I kept asking myself, “Okay, what is my take-away here?”
And, honestly, despite posing this question to myself for the better part of the last 100 pages, I never did arrive at an answer.
Ultimately, it felt like the author was trying to make so many points that plot got muddled and the gravity of any one point was diluted.
Sadly, I walked away from the book relatively disenchanted and really wanting so much more than it gave me.
Thanks to its masterful handing of a potential sensitive subject and the care with which the text itself was constructed, I give it 2 out of 5 cocktails.