Two Different Ways of Looking at the Apocalypse, No. 1

The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan

Picture it. It’s 2020, and the ice caps have melted. The great, life-sustaining salt-water currents that warm the earth have failed. The earth is plunged into the freezing abyss; a winter that none has ever seen before. Does this sound familiar to you? It’s pretty much the same set-up as the 2004 Roland Emmerich disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow. Luckily, the similarities stop there. Whereas Emmerich’s movie is a mess of CGI and faux-scientific mumbling and oddly weak acting on the part of Jake Gyllenhaal, Fagan has crafted something far more strange and wonderful out of the poetry of the frozen earth.

Icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks, or the long bony finger of winter herself. There will be frost flowers. Penitentes. Blin driftes. Overblaw. Skirlie. Eighre. Haar-frost

The Sunlight Pilgrims centres around three characters who are cut adrift from those around them in some way: Constance, who is shunned for taking two lovers; Dylan, the Incomer who has fled north from London; Stella, an eleven year old girl who has had the misfortune of being born into a boy’s body. They live variously in a Scottish caravan park, in the picturesque but isolated Clachan Fells, where they must endure the winter’s pressures as best they can—for when one lives in what Stella wryly describes as “what is essentially a metal tin at the bottom of seven mountains,” the elemental is never very far away.

Amid the intensity of the winter, the curious curvatures and formations of the ice-stricken landscape, everything in Clachan Fells seems to take on a heightened intensity. Every action takes on a far greater significance, every line of conversation is charged with meaning and the world falls into a strange, half-hallucinatory dreamscape. Fagan creates a reverie out of ice and isolation, where the imagination can roam free, and everything is strange and mutable.

The Sunlight Pilgrims | A Book A Week #2

Fagan’s strange and changeable landscape does not stop where the human starts, however. Stella is this mutability made flesh—she is “just a girl who might grow a boy’s face and voice; then every time she looks in a mirror who she is and who she sees won’t even vaguely match.” Her body is changing, but it’s changing in ways that are profoundly other to how she identifies. She has to circumnavigate not only the difficulties of growing up trans, but the difficulties of doing so in an environment where basic necessities such as food and medical supplies are not a given, let alone the hormone treatments that will stop her voice from breaking. It is no wonder that she fixes on the eponymous “sunlight pilgrims,” mystics in the northern islands who drink sunlight “right down into [their] chromosomes.”

Fagan sees this collocation of the quotidian and the strange and terrifying with a minutely-attuned gaze, and renders it as such. The strangeness that the winter brings with it is not just to be found in the skirlie or the eighre or the haar-frost, but in the silence that it brings with it, swaddling each moment of human consciousness in a blanket of cold and white.

Jenni Fagan, The Sunlight Pilgrims, William Heinemann (London: 2016)