Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Book Review: "The Sunlight Pilgrims" by Jenni Fagan

People often comment that there are not many original ideas out there. While that seems true sometimes, at other times you find a book that is pretty unique in certain ways, and isn't at all what you expected. That was definitely the case with Jenni Fagan's The Sunlight Pilgrims. While not everything meshed the way I had hoped, this was a unique and surprising book, and it definitely has stayed in my mind.

It's 2020 and the world is in the grips of the coldest temperatures on record, hitting below zero every day. There's snow in places there never was, rivers are overflowing and then freezing, and a giant iceberg is making its way from Norway to the coast of Scotland. People are panicking, rioting in the streets, and wondering if this is the end of the world. Those who can are fleeing to warmer temperatures, not that there are many places where those can be found.

While he'd like to head to what he believes are warmer climes in Vietnam, Dylan MacRae is on a mission. Reeling from the losses of both his beloved grandmother and mother, and with his family's movie theater being foreclosed upon, he travels to the Scottish Highlands town of Clachan Fells, where his mother apparently bought a caravan (trailer) before her death. He hopes to eventually get to the Orkney Islands, where his grandmother was from, to scatter both of their ashes.

When he arrives in Clachan Fells, he finds a community of people trying to understand what is coming and fearing the worst, expecting that this endless, brutal, unprecedented winter will be deadly for so many. He meets Constance Fairbairn, a survivalist of sorts, and her 12-year-old daughter, Stella, both of whom intrigue him in different ways. Constance lives by her own set of rules and has been judged by her fellow residents for years, and doesn't seem to care—except where their judgment affects Stella.

"Before it was just poverty, pestilence, terrorists, pedophiles, drugs, eating disorders, online grooming, meteors skimming a bit too close for comfort. Now every single person...looks like they are terrified they're all about to become frozen corpses."

Dylan quickly gets enmeshed in Clachan Fells life, and becomes a vital part of Constance and Stella's lives. His presence is welcomed by some but not all, and he finds he is actually more connected to the community than he thought. Stella struggles with identity and self-esteem issues, and is torn between wanting the approval of others and not caring. Beyond worrying about their survival, Constance wants her daughter's life to be easier than hers has been.

This book was intriguing and had surprising emotional depth, as I expected the book to be more about surviving this somewhat-dystopian environment. The characters were tremendously compelling and I found myself rooting for them. I just felt at times the book didn't get fully enmeshed in its plot, and brought up points that it never resolved. My biggest pet peeve about this book, however, was that Fagan didn't use quotation marks when characters spoke, simply m-dashes, so you couldn't distinguish when different characters were talking to one another, or even who said what.

Still, this is more a story about finding yourself and tapping into your own strength than it is about surviving the elements. Jenni Fagan is a talented storyteller, and this book will remain in my mind for a while.

NetGalley and Crown Publishing provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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