The Sunlight Pilgrims

The Sunlight Pilgrims

by Jenni Fagan


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The stunning new novel from the highly-acclaimed author of The Panopticon

It's November of 2020, and the world is freezing over. Each day colder than the last.
There's snow in Israel, the Thames is overflowing, and an iceberg separated from the Fjords in Norway is expected to drift just off the coast of Scotland. As ice water melts into the Atlantic, frenzied London residents evacuate by the thousands for warmer temperatures down south. But not Dylan. Grieving and ready to build life anew, he heads north to bury his mother's and grandmother's ashes on the Scottish islands where they once lived. 

Hundreds of miles away, twelve-year-old Estella and her survivalist mother, Constance, scrape by in the snowy, mountainous Highlands, preparing for a record-breaking winter. Living out of a caravan, they spend their days digging through landfills, searching for anything with restorative and trading value. When Dylan arrives in their caravan park in the middle of the night, life changes course for Estella and Constance. Though the weather worsens, his presence brings a new light to daily life, and when the ultimate disaster finally strikes, they'll all be ready. 

Written in incandescent, dazzling prose, The Sunlight Pilgrims is a visionary story of courage and resilience in the midst of nature's most violent hour; by turns an homage to the portentous beauty of our natural world, and to just how strong we can be, if the will and the hope is there, to survive its worst. 

- NPR “Best Books of 2016” – Family Matters, Identity & Culture, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Tales from Around the World

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553418897
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/11/2017
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 497,235
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

JENNI FAGAN was born in Scotland. She attended Greenwich University and won a scholarship to the Royal Holloway MFA. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she was shortlisted for the Dublin Impac, The James Tait Black, and was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright  © 2016 Jenni Fagan

Part I

November 2020, −6 degrees

They are quite clear about it. They use short declarative statements. Capital letters. Red ink. Some points are underlined. In summation: they want everything. It is the end. Dylan uses nail scissors to trim the longest stragglers on his beard, he bends over a row of sinks in the ladies’ and splashes water on his face. He has acted out many roles in front of these mirrors: Jedi, Goonie, zombie, vengeful telekinetic teen—a Soho kid growing up in an art-house cinema: he’d lie onstage in his pajamas watching stars glide across the ceiling for hours. His grandmother used to say that they were keepers of a conclave, a place where people came to feel momentarily safe, to remember who they once were—a thing so often ignored (out there) but in here: lights, camera, action!

Dylan pulls on his jumper and heads for the empty foyer. The ticket stall is musty. A trail of empty gin glasses leads to his projection booth. He briefly recalls toasting Tom and Jerry, Man Ray, Herzog and Lynch, Besson and Bergman, the girls from the peep show next door, Hansel, Gretel and all of their friends. He picks up the letter again. Even if she had told him, he couldn’t have done anything. The account is empty. There is less than nothing. The deficit has so many figures he quit counting. A pile of unpaid bills are stacked neatly in Vivienne’s vintage sewing box and when he got back from the crematorium he found an envelope containing the deeds for a caravan 578.3 miles away, with a pink Post‑it note and her scrawl: Bought for cash—no record in any of our accounts. Mum x.

What kind of last words are those, exactly?

He crumples the Post‑it note, drops it in the bin. It’s typically Vivienne—his mother: the moirologist, every sentence delivered like a eulogy. The woman wore winkle-pickers all her days and swore the purest form of water was gin; her finger would trail along their huge medical encyclopedia (their family bible) hoping to find a rare, incurable disease, something to penetrate her to the bone and never leave her.

There was less than six months between one passing and the next.

Gunn went first.

Then Vivienne.

Now he knows something he did not know before—there is a totality to silence.

It makes his bones ache.

His body has its habits. It is trained to listen for footsteps on the attic stairs each morning. His eyes stray toward the draining board, expecting to find mismatched mugs. The fridge probably still has sliced lemon in Tupperware boxes for a late-night session on the gin. He fills the kettle up enough for three mugs. A stack of records next to Gunn’s gramophone have still not been put back in their sleeves. Their cigarette ends (or Vivienne’s at least) are still in the ashtray. It’s almost like he had thought if he didn’t tidy the place for long enough they’d come back, out of sheer fucking irritation at him.

There is an impenetrability to absence.

He feels slighted, as if some wider trick has been played. Inconclusivity—rattles! He is a child questioning a magician’s trick. Where is the rabbit? Where is her voice? Where is their laughter? How come their voices were here and now they are not? It’s a basic question. Where exactly have they gone? They have made the ultimate disappearing act. Exit stage left—then the curtains of the magician’s tent flounce shut and a closed sign is placed right in front of it so the living cannot follow.

This is only grief—it will not bring them home.

He presses his fists into his eyes and swallows down hard. Repossessors will clamp metal shutters over the foyer doors in about ten hours and he will not be here to watch them. No doubt it will only be a matter of months before wealthy city types move into a well-designed property with great original features right in the middle of Soho. They’re doing it to all the businesses that go bust. He picks up a glass, wanting to hurl it with enough force that it could spin all the way through to the future—while the new residents walk around wearing unsubtle signifiers of wealth, the woman (in another room) would just hear a definite clunk one day as her other half took a tumbler to the head and slid perplexed, eyes glazed, down the wall.

If he is here when the repossessors arrive with cutters.

It won’t end well.

Dylan’s footsteps echo in the empty building. He strides along corridors that hold memories from his childhood in each and every nook. It’s all borrowed: bricks; bodies; breathing—it’s all on loan! Eighty years on the planet if you’re lucky; why do they say if you’re lucky? Eighty years and people trying to get permanent bits of stone before they go, as if permanence were a real thing. Everyone has been taken hostage. Bankers and big business are tyrannical demigods. Where is the comeback? There is no comeback because they own the people who have the guns who are there to keep the people (bankers and big business and governments) fucking safe and now they’re saying on the news it is too little, too late. The temperature is plummeting. Four scientists murdered at the Arctic. By whom?

Vast amounts of fresh water are flooding into the ocean from melting polar caps.

Environmentalists have been campaigning outside Westminster for weeks.

Nobody wants to have sex with him (he hasn’t tried, really).

He can’t be bothered breathing anymore.

The debt collectors have been to the door twice today. There was a minor scuffle. They said, quite seriously, they’ll take the lot by force if necessary, and they seemed hopeful for that possibility; they quite fancied battering a giant bearded weirdo, just for kicks, perk of the job, a wee added bonus for them. They are gnarly, violent-looking Serbians—if he had a cat they’d likely behead the thing, spike its head on the gates of the city so it could grin at passersby.

London is not lined with lollipops.

Businesses are closing—everywhere.

He should: take the keys to the bailiffs immediately. This is written in red capital letters. That’s not going to happen. If they want his family’s home then they can break in. He’s not handing it to them. Banks are doing this up and down the country; any hint of weakness (which they generate by wrecking the economy) and they swoop in, put great big metal shutters right across the doors, do it up and sell it for a profit. They’ll make a bomb. In all truth, he can’t be in this cinema without his mother and grandmother. This was their place. Everywhere he looks another part of him hurts.

Nobody told him grief would be so physical.


Sitting down.

Each muscle aching like he has been beaten from head to toe. Grief is in his marrow. It is in his brain. It has even slowed the way he washes his hands. Dylan enters their only auditorium and presses a button on the wall. Red curtains whirr toward each other, they trail across the stage like a dancer’s ballgown in an old film, and he turns on star lights so they glide across the ceiling. He will leave Cinema 1 like this. It’s only right. For the first time in over sixty years there will not be a MacRae in ownership at 345a Fat Boy Lane, Soho. Babylon (the smallest art-house cinema in all of Europe) will no longer glow from the foyer chandelier as people hurry by in the rain.

Dylan pulls on socks, boots, grabs a scarf.

He packs Vivienne’s old suitcase.

Art-deco ashtrays.


Two cinema reels.

The urns are on the popcorn stand and he tries to fit them into the suitcase but it won’t close. He begins to sweat and rummages behind the counter for a plastic bag but there aren’t any. He yanks open cupboards and the box-office till, he looks in the bin, wrenches open the dishwasher—there is an old ice cream tub and a Tupperware container.

He takes them out.

Places the urns on the counter.

Gunn should go in the ice cream tub. It’s bigger. Not that she is likely to have more ashes but she would be less bothered about being in an ice cream tub than Vivienne. Vivienne would be mighty fucking pissed off about traveling anywhere in an ice cream tub. His grandmother wouldn’t give much of a shit. Dylan wishes (not for the first time today) that he had drunk a little less last night. He picks up one urn, then puts it back down again, beginning slightly to panic. He unscrews Gunn’s urn and tips the ashes into the ice cream tub. Some fall onto the floor and he automatically rubs at them with his boot, then looks up and mouths the word Sorry. He lobs that empty urn into the sink and unscrews the other one. He tips Vivienne into the Tupperware container but it fills to the brim too quickly—he can’t fit all of her ashes in there.

—Fuck’s sake!

Dylan slams drawers and finds a spoon and carefully pats his mother’s ashes down until there is a half inch of space on top. They have to fit in. He can’t take her in two different containers. It wouldn’t be right and anyway there’s only popcorn boxes left and they have no lids! His hands are shaky. He is too hungover for this shit. He needs sugar. Coffee. A wank. More sleep. None of these things are going to happen. He pours in the rest of his mother’s ashes and pats them down, pours the last bit and smoothes them down as well; a cold slick of sweat trickles right down his back as he tries to snap on the lid. He never could get Tupperware container lids on easily. It’s a skill he doesn’t possess.

—What’s the fucking deal with this bollocks!

The roaring and shaking his fist and stamping his feet doesn’t help, so he stands on it and the Tupperware lid clicks. He gets a bit of gaffer tape and wraps it around just to make sure. He picks them up. What if he forgets which one is which? He could text himself a note: Grandma’s in the ice cream tub, Mum’s in the sandwich box. Instead he rummages around until he finds a roll of stickers and uses a ballpoint to scrawl Gunn on one, then Vivienne with a smiley face on another. Sometimes he has no idea how he made it to thirty-eight. He is always running late, for a start, as if time is the main problem in his life. It seems pretty much all the things people are supposed to have done by his age have passed him by, while he did nothing but develop an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure cinema and the rudimentary skills of distilling gin.

That was fine when he was helping to keep the family business afloat.

It’s unlikely to impress the job center.

Dylan places the containers side by side. They fit neatly into the suitcase now—it’s not the most elegant way to take his mum and grandma back to their homeland but it will do the job. He places a photograph of Gunn, Vivienne and himself as a baby on top and clicks the suitcase shut. Dylan reassures himself that this must be the worst hangover he has ever had in his life and his brain will return to optimum (average) functioning by tomorrow, or the day after at a push. He has at least twelve hours to be vacant on the megabus journey. That thought is soothing. Although the megabus is no doubt a shit-fest of body odor and claustrophobia and every bit of public transport is overcrowded with people panicking, but not so many will be going north like him. There is a hard knot of muscle in his shoulder. He looks for a piece of A4 paper but there isn’t any in the printer, so he grabs a flyer: Les Français vus par (The French as Seen By . . .), 13 minutes long, W. Herzog. He writes carefully on the back and takes it out to place in the Upcoming Screenings sign; the bailiffs won’t cover that up with metal boards:

On behalf of Gunn and Vivienne MacRae, I want to say a huge thank-you to all of our faithful customers—it was my family’s privilege to shine a light in the dark here for over sixty years and there is nothing we would rather have done. Running such an extraordinary cinema would not have been possible without all of you. Babylon was our family business but it was also our home. May the film reels (somewhere, for all of us) play on!

With Gratitude,

Dylan MacRae

Lights flash outside the peep show next door. He puts his hand on the glass foyer door and steps back into the dim. Dylan has an image of his mother in his head—she is sitting in the front row wearing a miner’s hat with a lamp on the front, reading in a circle of light but keeping the darkness always close enough to touch. They keep playing. These little film reels in his brain. He wants to go upstairs and find her jumper and put it on, so he can smell her and sit down in the front row and drink all the gin left in the cellar, but he’s sure that would be a bit Bundy or some other random psychopath who had issues with their mother. He has no issues, he just misses them both more than he can take. He picks up the deeds for the caravan, the address, his bus ticket. He grabs her suitcase and pulls the old Exit door closed behind him.

It is so cold on the city streets that his skin stings and reddens; he needs to buy warmer clothes, some kind of winter boots. His throat is so tight and constricted it is hard to swallow. He checks his watch and there is still over an hour before the bus leaves, so he heads for the river—he wants to see it before he goes. Red lights flash on and off, lighting up the pavement as he walks away from Babylon. He wants to turn around, but for the very first time in his life there is absolutely nowhere to go back to. With each step forward the road behind him disappears. That’s what it feels like. Just one step back and it would be an endless plummet. His shoes click on the wet pavement. His breath curls on the air. He is going to go along by the river even though it takes longer because for once in his life he has left with time to spare. Ornate lampposts with wrought-iron fish at the bottoms of them sparkle with frost. It is way too early in the year for it to be as Baltic as this, they’ve only just hit November.

Reading Group Guide

Official Reading Group Guide for The Sunlight Pilgrims

In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this novel—as wellas the ending. If you have not finished reading The Sunlight Pilgrims, we respectfully suggest that you wait before reviewing this guide.

1. Discuss Dylan’s grief. What do you think the author is trying to accomplish with starting the novel with this feeling of loss?

2. Although The Sunlight Pilgrims is fictional and takes place in the future, the drastic change in weather is a real possible threat. Take a moment to imagine how cold each temperature at the beginning of the chapter really is. Would you be able to survive those extreme temperatures?

3. Do you think there is significance behind Dylan losing two women and then finding two different women that he instantly feels connected to?

4. Discuss the unorthodox family structures in the novel.

5. Discuss Stella and Constance’s relationship. How do you think their relationship changed with Stella’s transition? Do you think they grew closer as the novel progressed?

6. Stella is struggling with her own identity and gender during the worst winter on record. Discuss the parallels between these two events.

7. Although Constance is a main character, the reader never gets her direct point of view. Did you ever find yourself wishing you knew her thoughts? Why do you think the author decided to only write from Stella and Dylan’s perspective?

8. Discuss Stella and Dylan’s relationship. Why do you think they get along so well? Do you think Stella wants Dylan to be with her mother?

9. If you knew a giant iceberg was headed toward your town, what would you do? Do you think it was wise of the group to go see it?

10. Do you think nature just serves as a setting in the novel, or do you think it has a larger role?

11. There are a lot of other minor, but interesting, characters in Clachan Falls. Discuss them and the role they serve in the novel.

12. The ending of the Sunlight Pilgrims is open to interpretation, what do you think happened?

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