By: Jenni Fagan
Set in a Scottish caravan park during a freak winter – it is snowing in Jerusalem, the Thames is overflowing, and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to arrive off the coast of Scotland – THE SUNLIGHT PILGRIMS tells the story of a small Scottish community living through what people have begun to think is the end of times. Bodies are found frozen in the street with their eyes open, euthanasia has become an acceptable response to economic collapse, schooling and health care are run primarily on a voluntary basis. But daily life carries on: Dylan, a refugee from panic-stricken London who is grieving for his mother and his grandmother, arrives in the caravan park in the middle of the night – to begin his life anew.
Completion: To be honest the first twenty pages were a bit rocky, and I became a little worried about what I had gotten myself into. Without giving anything away, the author took some risks with the characters that seemed a bit shocking at first. However, as the story went on, the characters moved past their shocking introductions and became fleshed-out characters.
Writing/Style: The scenic descriptions of Scotland in winter are vivid and beautiful. Fagan goes deep into the minds and struggles of these characters which I really appreciated, and she took the time to represent and really invest in the life of Stella, a trans teen living in the caravan park Dylan goes to. I found that having a complex queer main character was a real plus of this book.
Characters: After the first twenty pages, the characters started to move beyond their initial shock value, and I found them to be endearing and quirky. Stella was lively and funny, Dylan supportive and sympathetic, and Stella’s mom complex and interesting.
(I must note that the summary above is seriously misleading, focusing solely on the character Dylan, despite the fact that he shares page time and narration equally with Stella, a trans teen he meets in the caravan park. This omission, while of no fault of the author’s, leaves a bad taste in my mouth because it seems like marketing tried to erase Stella because she was a queer character despite the fact that she is one of the strong points of this novel…)
Plot/Pacing: The plot largely revolves around Dylan’s grief over the loss of his mother and grandmother and Stella’s struggle for acceptance during the beginning years of her transition. I felt that this content and the connection between Dylan and Stella were strong and powerful. My only qualm is the ending which seems incomplete, vague, and a bit of a cop-out.
World-Building/Atmosphere: Scotland and the Scottish caravan park community felt fully realized, but the dystopian element fell way short (which I will explain more in my Sub-genres section). If I didn’t want to go to Scotland before, I definitely do now.
Sub-genres (Romance, Humor, Mystery, etc.): I’m the last one to say that genre is useless or distracting, but in the case of this book, the dystopian part of the story was really unnecessary. The story is about Dylan dealing with loss and Stella dealing with transition in the setting of a small Scottish community in winter, and the end of the world is left on the back burner. The dystopian element adds nothing to this, and often times the characters seem separate from the supposed horrors going on in the “end of times”.
While the news speaks of disaster, the characters do not seem to react to it any more than they would for an especially harsh winter, and they certainly do not change because of this element. There are only two times that the characters interacted with the dystopian world: a minor incident toward the end and the ending itself. Personally, I believe that if the dystopian world had been scraped nothing would be lost, and more time could have been spent on the characters and the setting.
FINAL VERDICT: Despite its flaws, The Sunlight Pilgrims offers some endearing characters facing their personal struggles. The setting of a small Scottish community in winter is unique and interesting, and the queer representation is much appreciated. If you are searching for a book with engaging characters, a fascinating setting, and queer representation, then look no further. However, if you are looking for thrilling or haunting dystopia, then the search continues.
*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.