Tag Archives: The Sunlight Pilgrims

Six Degrees of Separation – from The Dry to The Hotel New Hampshire

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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We’re starting this month with Jane Harper’s The Dry which I haven’t read but I remember it popping up frequently in my Twitter feed when it was published. I do know that it’s a thriller set in small town Australia.

As is Lesley Glaister’s nail-biting As Far as You Can Go which sees a British couple running a remote Australian farm after answering an advertisement. I remember being gripped by this as their letters to the outside world go unanswered and the farm’s owners’ behaviour becomes increasingly odd.

Cassie and Graham are running away from problems in Glaister’s spooky thriller as is Dylan who is escaping the bailiffs in Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims. The only place left to go is the caravan his mother left him in Scotland where the temperature is plummeting.

There’s a distinctly dystopian flavour to Fagan’s novel as there is to Megan’s Hunter’s strikingly poetic The End We Start From, the story of a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives.

I’m using Hunter’s name to link with Carson McCuller’s classic The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which tells the story of a deaf-mute whose kindly nature draws in his fellow townspeople, many lonely and unhappy.

McCuller’s celebrated debut is set in small mill town in America, down on its uppers, as is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls which is set against the backdrop of the eponymous town in the state of Maine where the manager of the local diner has a lot on his plate.

Maine is right next door to New Hampshire which leads me to John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire and the Berrys, the family that runs it. I’ve gone off the boil somewhat with Irving’s recent novels but this is one of his best: a showcase for his consummate storytelling skills and entertaining characters.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a drought-stricken small Australian town to a hotel on the US Eastern seaboard run by an eccentric family. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

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.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in August 2016

Cover imageSeveral jewels to look out for in August’s paperback crown, starting with one of the best books I’ve read this year: Merritt Tierce’s debut Love Me Back. It’s the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Coolly collected, beautifully turned out in her starched bistro apron and meticulously pressed shirt, Marie is the reliable one, always stepping in to fill a shift vacancy but careful to dodge any chance of promotion so that she can spend weekends with her daughter. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty. That may not sound the stuff of literary excellence but believe me that’s what Tierce fashions it into. Altogether a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

Lucia Berlin would have been all too familiar with the seamier side of work, fitting her stories around a multitude of jobs from teaching English to cleaning houses. She died in 2004 having written intermittently over a long period stretching back to the ‘60s. A Manual for Cleaning Women, a collection of her stories which draw heavily on her own life, was published last year to enormous and well deserved acclaim. There’s a striking immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from the graphic, panicky tooth extraction of ‘Doctor H. A. Moynihan’ to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation in ‘Unmanageable’. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Without wanting to be a proselytising zealot, I’ll just say that this collection played a large part in converting me to the pleasure of reading short stories.

Written in a lighthearted, mischievous style Grégoire Delacourt’s The First Thing You See is Cover imageentirely different but succeeds in delivering quite a punch. When he hears a knock at his door, twenty-year-old Arthur Drefuss hauls himself off the sofa – mid-Sopranos – only to find Scarlett Johansson on his doorstep. Granted she looks a little bedraggled but she’s as stunningly beautiful both in face and figure as she is on-screen. Of course it’s nor Ms Johansson who, it turns out, didn’t like the idea of this book at all, managing to delay its publication for quite some time. Delacourt avoids the maudlin, keeping his tone light and witty apart from rare moments of sadness in this fable-like novel which puts our adulation of physical beauty, celebrity and the nature of desire in an unflattering spotlight. It’s a little gem.

I’ve yet to get my hands on the following four starting with Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims. Anais, the main protagonist of Fagan’s debut, The Panopticon, was one of those characters who stayed with me for quite some time: bright, sassy and fierce – she was extraordinarily vividly drawn. I’m hoping for something similar with this one which seems to be set in the near future on a Scottish caravan park. It tells the story of a small community who are beginning to think that the freak weather spells the end of the world. Strange things are happening, the economy has collapsed and public services are in the hands of volunteers. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction but Fagan’s writing is so striking that I’ll be making an exception for this one.

I tend not to be a fan of historical novels, either, but Naomi J. Williams’ debut Landfalls has a very attractive structure. Set on board two ships which set sail from France in 1785 on a voyage of scientific and geographical discovery returning four years later, it’s told from the perspective of different characters, all of whom have their own agenda, taking its readers from a remote Alaskan bay, where tragedy hits, to St Petersburg. It all sounds very ambitious but if it comes off I think this could be a very absorbing novel.

The Private Life of Mrs SharmaMy last August choice is here thanks to Naomi’s description of it as ‘as close to perfect as it gets’ over at The Writes of Women. In Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, Renuka keeps the household afloat while her husband works in Dubai. All seems on track for her aspirations to the New Indian Dream until she finds herself chatting to a stranger, wondering if it might not be time to shrug off the calls of duty a little. The publishers describe it as ‘a sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity, from a dramatic new voice in Indian fiction’ but you might like to take a look at Naomi’s review.

That’s it for August. A click on a title will take you to my reviews for the first three, to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis for the next two and to The Writes of Women for Naomi’s review of the last one. And if you want to catch up with August’s hardback delights they’re here and here.

Books to Look Out For in April 2016: Part 2

Cover imageThis second batch of April titles kicks off with a book that’s been getting a fair bit of attention in my neck of the Twitter woods. Not always a good sign but it’s been from the kind of people who usually know what they’re talking about. Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is set in Bulgaria where an American teacher looking for sex encounters a hustler in one of Sofia’s public toilets. What begins as a transaction turns into an obsession in what sounds like a powerful debut. ‘Lyrical and intense, it tells the story of a man caught between longing and resentment, unable to separate desire from danger, and faced with the impossibility of understanding those he most longs to know’ say the publishers.

Also getting a bit of Twitter attention a little while back, David Szalay’s All That Man Is follows nine men, all of whom are away from home, each at different stages in their lives. Set in a variety of locations, from the suburbs of Prague to a Cypriot hotel, it’s ‘a portrait of contemporary manhood, contemporary Europe and contemporary life from a British writer of supreme gifts – the master of a new kind of realism’ say the publishers. The structure is a very appealing one although the predominantly male set of characters may become a bit wearing. Cover image

‘Postmodern’, a word that crops up in the blurb for the next novel, tends to run up a warning flag for me  but the synopsis for Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death is hard to resist. It begins with a brutal tennis match in which Caravaggio takes on the Spanish poet Quevedo before an audience which includes Galileo and Mary Magdelene. According to the publishers ‘there are assassinations and executions, hallucinogenic mushrooms, bawdy criminals, carnal liaisons and papal dramas, artistic and religious revolutions, love and war. A blazingly original voice and a postmodern visionary, Álvaro Enrigue tells the grand adventure of the dawn of the modern era, breaking down traditions and upending expectations, in this bold, powerful punch of a novel.’ There’s every chance, of course, that it’s the kind of book that’s just too tricksy for its own good.

Anais, the main protagonist of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, was one of those characters who stayed with me for quite some time: bright, sassy and fierce – she was extraordinarily vividly drawn. I’m hoping for something similar with The Sunlight Pilgrims which seems to be set in the near future on a Scottish caravan park. It tells the story of a small community who are beginning to think that the freak weather spells the end of the world. Strange things are happening, the economy has collapsed and public services are in the hands of volunteers. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction but Fagan’s writing is so striking that I’ll be making an exception for this one.

Cover imageMy final choice for April new novels is Barney Norris’s Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain. I’ve included it partly because it’s set in Salisbury, not a million miles from where I live, and partly because it sounds like a piece of good old-fashioned storytelling. A car crash results in the intersection of five lives each disastrously effected by the accident. ‘As one of those lives hangs in the balance, the stories of all five unwind, drawn together by connection and coincidence into a web of love, grief, disenchantment and hope that perfectly represents the joys and tragedies of small town life’ apparently. It could, of course, be hopelessly sentimental but I think I’ll give it a try if only for its setting.

That’s it for April’s new books. Just click on whichever title catches your attention if you’d like a little more detail. If you missed part one and would like to catch up with it, here it is.