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The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan: A touch of the Iain Banks

Cover imageI’m not a fan of dystopian fiction. There’s quite enough of that in the twenty-four-hour news misery cycle playing out every day which seems even more miserable in 2016 than usual – or perhaps that’s just me. The blurb for Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims sounded as if it might have a distinctly dystopian bent but her first novel, The Panopticon, with its bright, sassy, vividly drawn main protagonist, Anais, made such an impression on me that any misgivings had to be overcome. Although that bent is undeniable – an Ice Age has the 2020 world in its grip – Fagan’s tale of a woman, her daughter and an Incomer with roots deeper than he thinks, is so engaging that it becomes a frozen backdrop rather than the novel’s point.

Dylan has had the misfortune to lose both his mother and his beloved grandmother within six months of each other. Born in London, he grew up in a tiny Soho art-house cinema. Now thirty-eight and single, he’s about to be homeless as the bailiffs close in, with only a note from his mother telling him about a caravan waiting for him in Scotland. A city man from his copiously bearded head to his Chelsea-booted toes, Dylan gets himself on a coach and makes his way to Clachan Falls. Once he’s settled in, he comes across a sketchbook which will later explain a great deal about his origins and why his mother has set him up in the most unlikely of circumstances. Woken in the night by the sound of hoovering, he pops out to find his sleepwalking neighbour vacuuming the road, then polishing her windows. The next day he meets Stella, his neighbour’s daughter, who gives him the lowdown on the inhabitants of Ash Lane, from Ida the porn star to the Satan-worshipping stoner. Her mother’s twenty-year-long, on again, off again, affair with Alistair has produced Stella who was once Cael but has decided she’s a girl which presents its own set of problems. When Stella introduces him to the resourceful, determined Constance it’s not long before he’s besotted. Stella’s battle to be recognised as a girl, the revelations about Dylan’s roots and his yearning for Constance all play out against a backdrop of ever-dropping temperatures and occasional news bulletins from a world which seems further and further away.

The vividly poetic Prologue which opens Fagan’s novel sets the tone for some striking descriptive writing along with sharply drawn characters. Both Dylan and Constance are engaging protagonists but it’s Stella who’s the star of the show with her determination to overcome all obstacles, her goth leanings and her precocious intelligence: ‘When grown-ups hear a little dark door creaking in their hearts they turn the telly up’ thinks Stella deciding that she’ll open her own door wide when she hears it creaking. There’s a rich vein of humour running through the novel – ‘And your dad?’ asks Stella ‘My mum didn’t catch his name’ replies Dylan – gently diffusing the dystopian element. While it’s true that the world is off to hell in a handcart with bankers and big business out of control, temperatures plummeting and waves of violent crime reported on the news, it’s subtly done – no heavy-handed polemic here although the end is sobering. Fagan weaves myth and science through her novel, spinning a story of family, friendship and love which put me in mind a little of Iain Banks. I loved it – witty, engrossing and beautifully expressed it’s a worthy successor to The Panopticon.