In 2020, the entire world will experience a complete absence of light. Polar caps are melting, the North Atlantic Drift is cooling, and in some places temperatures will plummet to as low
as –50˚F. In the Scottish village of Clachan Fells, three suns raised high above a caravan park usher in the coldest winter in 200 years. Gazing up at the bright clusters of energy are Dylan MacRae, an incomer with mysterious family ties to the community; Constance Fairbairn, survivalist and moon polisher; and Constance’s 12-year-old daughter, Stella, a goth sunlight pilgrim and absorber of the light. Thus begins Jenni Fagan’s standout second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims (LJ Xpress Reviews, 7/8/16; ow.ly/1cCu304QgD1), after her acclaimed debut, The Panopticon, a 2013 LJ Top Ten Best Book. With this work, “at the intersection of dystopian fiction and magical realism,” two active genres, Fagan projects a future extrapolated from pressures on the present. “Despite its forbidding setting, [this] remains a hopeful tale about human connections,” writes LJ reviewer Lauren Gilbert.
“Human connections are shaping the future,” says Scotland-based Fagan in a recent phone interview with LJ. “Currently, our world is disconnected, there’s a lot of fear, and people need some kind of narrative when so much doesn’t make sense. Literature provides us with a space [in which] to speculate and tell the truth in a way that other art forms don’t. The luxury of the imagination means we don’t have to be confined by fact or label.”
A published poet who has always wanted to be a painter, Fagan is intrigued by how people respond and react, particularly when living on the periphery of society, which explains why she set this story in a rural trailer park located near a dump, similar to where she herself lived for five years. As a writer and artist, Fagan strives to ground her work in reality, and while touches of magical realism are evident in her urgent, lyrical prose, this work conveys very real-world possibilities.
The planet itself plays a central role in the novel, as Fagan reminds us that “nature is so much bigger than any of us, with its vast landscapes connecting life to life.” As she says, “In this story, the planet becomes more normal, something to understand. The reason we can understand it is because we can relate to characters who are similar to ourselves, enabling us to inhabit a space, or the future, from a different perspective.” Literature’s mission accomplished.
The novel looks at the future perception of family, those into which we are born and those we create. Readers will grapple with the concept upon discovering the history of Dylan’s family secrets going back generations and his connection to Stella. Fagan is concerned with what’s next, compelling readers to think about what might be happening now. “You may not always be looking for people, but people are looking for you.”
Recurring also is the theme of embracing uncertainty. “The ability to move with uncertainty,” says Fagan, “is key to modern life, for everybody.” Thus Dylan embraces mortality while coping with the loss of his mother and grandmother, and Stella seizes an unpredictable nature to help her navigate life as a trans teen.
Fagan’s affecting, near picture-perfect imagery is without a doubt sourced from her deep love of words. When asked about the title’s origin, which references a set of monks who drank peyote and felt their bodies literally creating light, she says, “I’m always thinking of the quality of light, it gets us through the darkest times. Literature is one way to transcend the darkness.” There’s certainly a bright future ahead for Fagan, as her vision for what’s next doesn’t stop here. She’s working on novels three and four at the moment, which are set over a 120-year period, 1910–2030, doubtless showing us how the near future will unfold.—Annalisa Pesek