This review originally appeared, in edited form, in The Spectator.
It is the fate of the second novel to be measured against the debut that it follows, a fate that becomes inescapable when that debut is met with acclaim (Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize) or is held to exemplify some modish literary subgenre (‘gritty Scottish realism’, in Fagan’s case, a designation that was not only modish but also largely invented).
Fagan was ill-served, in this regard, by reflexive comparisons to Irvine Welsh, which made much of her use of profanity and dialect. But whereas the strenuous transgressiveness of Welsh’s style has long since descended into shtick, Fagan’s coarseness of language, to the extent that it was remarkable at all, was never more than surface detail. It was clearly in the service of authenticity of voice, and never subsumed her intentions in the way that Welsh’s has. Anais Hendricks, the disturbed but resilient protagonist of The Panopticon, is memorable for much more than her readiness with swear words. Far more noteworthy, for instance, was Fagan’s rigorously unsentimental and richly illuminating treatment of vulnerability and mental illness.
When eleven-year-old Stella Fairbairn, the central presence in The Sunlight Pilgrims, lapses into vulgarity, she is half-heartedly discouraged by her mother, Constance, who resorts (in a wry gesture by Fagan) to keeping a swear jar. Unlike The Panopticon, which imagined a contemporary dystopia of dysfunctional care homes and squalid flats, The Sunlight Pilgrims evokes a bracingly plausible near-future (the year is 2020) in which climate change has lurched into a terrifyingly acute phase: there is snow in Jerusalem; an iceberg is looming off the Scottish coast.
If a recurring preoccupation is evident, it is with the inner lives of the marginalised in the shadow of vast and indifferent forces. Stella, we learn, was once a boy named Cael. Her transition, though supported by the valiant and resourceful Constance, has not been entirely untraumatic. She is subjected to horrific bullying and institutional callousness. Denied the hormonal treatments she needs and unwilling to contemplate surgery, she struggles to construct for herself an attainable ideal of femininity. In a deeply touching scene, handled by Fagan with characteristic lightness of touch, Stella watches online porn featuring a trans actor. There is nowhere else, she reflects, where she can see ‘a body like her own having sex’.
Stella and Constance are joined in their caravan park by Dylan, who, until their recent deaths, ran an arthouse cinema in Soho with his resolutely unconventional mother and grandmother. Dylan is cast adrift, both by his grief and by the encroaching crisis. As the cold intensifies and the news is filled with intimations of social collapse, these three are soon entwined in unlikely domesticity, finding in it the nearest thing to salvation that this intimately imagined and chillingly credible apocalypse has to offer.
The Sunlight Pilgrims is published by William Heinemann.