Scottish author Jenni Fagan won plaudits and prizes for her highly acclaimed debut novel The Panoptican. Second novels can be notoriously difficult: an outstandingly successful first outing can be a very hard act to follow. With The Sunlight Pilgrims Jenni Fagan has sidestepped the "Second Novel Syndrome" to produce a remarkably accomplished and enjoyable piece of work. Here is a book that draws you into the lives of fascinating, intriguing characters facing truly exceptional circumstances in a setting that could, except for those circumstances, seem almost mundane.
Dylan is a giant of a man who has spent most of his life helping his mother and grandmother run a small cinema in London's Soho. But they have both died, and the accumulated debts mean that the bailiffs are closing in. Dylan discovers that his mother had secretly purchased a caravan on a site in Scotland and, with nowhere else to go, gets on a coach heading north to begin a new life. Constance and Stella are residents of the neighbouring caravan. Constance is best known in the local community for having two lovers, and Stella, her eleven-year old daughter, is going through fundamental changes in her life.
The setting for the story is "Clachan Fells", a fictional part of Scotland that has mountains and a harbour, is in the highlands, yet also has a motorway, a city rubbish dump and a nearby branch of Ikea. The reader's difficulty in tying down the location adds a nice sense of dislocation to the backdrop that gives even sharper focus to the central characters. But the dislocation afforded by a slightly hazy setting is nothing when compared to the impact of what is happening in Clachan Fells and beyond. The book opens in November 2020, during the worst winter in 200 years. By March 2021 this has become the worst winter imaginable. The temperature has descended to -56 degrees; an iceberg has turned up amid the sea ice that has locked in the harbour near Clachan Fells; death in the streets is routine; the River Thames has been frozen for months; and north Africa and the middle east are blanketed by snow. And Ikea has opened its doors to all-comers as a community centre for those who might otherwise simply perish in the cold.
As winter tightens its grip, the relationships between the three central characters grow stronger, and it becomes clear that the decision by Dylan's late mother to buy this particular caravan on this particular site was no accident. Can Constance, Stella and Dylan find ways of living that allow their relationships to take on a longer term meaning? Does the phrase "longer term" itself have any meaning when the world outside simply keeps on getting colder?