Every second novel is fated to be measured against its predecessor; and that comparison is particularly hard when the debut in question was acclaimed (Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize) or held to exemplify some modish literary sub-genre. Fagan’s style was tagged as ‘gritty Scottish realism’, and ill-served by comparisons to Irvine Welsh, which made much of her use of profanity and dialect. But where Welsh’s style has long since descended into shtick, Fagan’s coarseness of language was never more than surface detail. It was clearly in the service of authenticity of voice, and Anais Hendricks, the disturbed but resilient protagonist of The Panopticon, is memorable for much more than her readiness with swear-words. Here was an unsentimental and illuminating treatment of vulnerability and mental illness.
When 11-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 chillingly plausible near-future (the year is 2020) in which climate change has lurched into an acute phase: there is snow in Jerusalem and an iceberg is looming off the Scottish coast.
Fagan’s preoccupation 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 suffers 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 Scottish caravan park by Dylan, who ran an arthouse cinema in Soho with his unconventional mother and grandmother until their recent deaths. Dylan is cast adrift, both by his grief and by the encroaching crisis. As the cold intensifies and the news fills 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 apocalypse has to offer.