In a caravan park in Scotland, Constance and Stella — mother and daughter — try to keep warm, and sane, and befriend a new grief-stricken neighbour, Dylan, who has moved north after the death of his beloved mother and grandmother, and the closure of the tiny art-house Soho cinema in which he was raised. They are a spirited, eccentric trio: Dylan makes his own gin, Constance likes to wear a wolf costume made by one of her two boyfriends, and Stella is only recently Stella, mid-transition from being Cael, a 12-year-old boy.
Stella carries the novel — a bold, outspoken, sensitive kid who swears hyperactively and withstands the taunts of the classmates mystified and amused by her new gender. Like Anais, the in-care, trouble-hungry heroine of Fagan’s much-lauded first novel The Panopticon, Stella inhabits a societal edgeland. She doesn’t quite fit conventional expectation of how a person should be; she defies norms and rules. And her interactions with the state reveal its lack of understanding and of basic human sympathy — a doctor, for example, who tries to prescribe her Prozac rather than the hormone-blockers she so desperately wants in order to erase her burgeoning facial hair.
Luckily, she has Constance — her fearless, survivalist mother who can make stoves and soup and furniture, and knows how to wield an axe. Constance, however, suffers, a slight misfortune in the book, as the character who is required to divulge necessary information about its central themes. In a conversation about gender with her daughter, she recites a list of fish on the male-and-female spectrum — “angel fish, sea bass, snook, clown fish, wrasse” — and can remember when the last iceberg came to Scotland: “Treshnish in 1902”. Even Stella feels compelled to call her out on her unlikely internal encyclopedia: “I love the way your brain stores random trivia.”
This is climate change made palpably real: not an abstract threat, but a day-to-day fight to stay alive
Stella finishes combing her hair while she thinks about it. She types a reply: ‘More scared about how to go through transition, don’t know how to do it.’”
There is also the dramatic challenge of the characters becoming trapped by the elements. As temperatures drop, momentum falls away too, and though Fagan’s depiction of the encroaching, consuming winter is powerful, weather only takes you so far. But perhaps that’s the point. The novel’s central concern is survival, basic existence, the things — humour, friendship, sex — that bind us together when life is barely liveable, and that might be purpose enough.
The Sunlight Pilgrims, by Jenni Fagan, William Heinemann, RRP£12.99, 320 pages