The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

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The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: The freak winter of 2020 is juxtaposed against three people's personal struggles but it's the pre-teen hero/heroine that takes the spotlight. Powerful, moving and insightful
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: April 2016
Publisher: William Heinemann
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0434023301

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Dylan walks away from this family's small London indie cinema in 2020 to live on a Scottish caravan site. His new neighbours Constance and her transgender 12 year old Stella have troubles of their own, but the odd British winter isn't helping. As the country faces true Arctic temperatures life goes on… or at least it tries to.

Scottish author Jenni Fagan took the book world by storm with her debut novel The Panopticon. It also led to Jenni becoming one of Granta's best young novelists of 2013. Now, three years later, her second book is set to knock as many literary socks off.

In the beginning we're following Dylan who leaves London just ahead of the bailiffs after the deaths of his beloved gran and mother. He discovers that he's had about as much luck as Constance who has been unlucky in love and life on a regular basis. We quickly warm to both mother and bereaved Londoner but they soon become support players in our minds as it's Stella, Constance's pre-teen rock, who stands out. In fact this is as much Stella's story as it is the weather's.

In creating Stella, Jenni allows us into a world that many of us have only witnessed via biased and half-reported media stories or documentaries. For Stella was born a boy by quirk of nature rather than a wholly felt, inbuilt identity; her identity is definitely female. She's perfectly at ease with living life as a girl; her fight and problems are with those who aren't as understanding, from her classmates to a doctor whom it's easy to feel should know better. This is no dirge of a story though. This is a reflection of life with laughter, arguments and a deeper understanding of a child who has realised that her body has betrayed her.

The further we get the more we see that the winter is a subtle metaphor. The freakish temperatures are described in parallel with those who see Stella as a freak. She also feels that time is against her as she seeks medical gender reassignment before puberty takes its toll, coinciding with another physical sword of Damocles moving closer to the nation. One line in particular …feels like everything that was once in order has unravelled… sums up the situation for both the child and the meteorology.

Jenni writes with such great understanding and insight into Stella's life and struggles that this book should be required reading for teens and adults alike. (There is some swearing but to be honest it's in context and more likely to surprise an adult than a teenager.) There's no preaching, just a low key tale of normality and the desperation for the everyday in the eye of a threat.

Jenni continues what she started in her debut. That is to unveil the power of the written word to the extent that I defy anyone not to shed a silent tear or two before the story finishes.

(Thank you to all at William Heinemann, for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: We would be amiss if we didn't advocate the brilliant The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan as your next read, so we will.

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Buy The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan at


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