ON April 20, 1535, a strange cosmic sight appeared above the city of Stockholm in Sweden. For several hours, three suns seemed to shine out of the same sky, with haloes of light radiating out from each of them. It was a time of great religious upheaval, so it was natural the crowds that bore witness to this celestial display should regard it as a message from their maker. Twelve years earlier the country had gained its independence from Denmark in the Swedish War of Liberation and the leader of the rebel movement Gustav Eriksson (later known as Gustav Vasa) had been elected King. Vasa drove the country’s Reformation, divesting the Catholic clergy of power and privilege. Was this amazing light show God’s way of signalling His intent to wreak revenge on the sovereign and the city?
In an attempt to assuage public fears, the Chancellor and Lutheran scholar Olaus Petri commissioned a painting of the event. But – as one version of the story has it – when the completed artwork was unveiled, Vasa interpreted it as evidence of a conspiracy against him. He, the real sun, was under threat from two imposters. His suspicions festered. Eventually, he turned against Petri and fellow Lutheran intellectual Laurentius Andreae, accusing them of treachery, and what had been heralded as a portent of doom became one; a dark and self-fulfilling prophecy.
The three suns over Stockholm were, in fact, parhelia or sun dogs: an atmospheric phenomenon caused by the refraction of light through ice crystals. Often, the phantom suns are hazy, but now and again they shine so brightly they resemble giant torches setting the sky ablaze.
The cover of Jenni Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims – which shows three gold circles within a series of concentric rings – bears more than a passing resemblance to the Vädersolstavlan, the painting of Stockholm commissioned by Petri, and her story begins with the three main characters gazing up at the parhelia which have appeared above a caravan park in Clachan Fells, a valley surrounded by seven mountains, somewhere in northern Scotland. Dylan, an ‘incomer’, still mourning the deaths of his mother and grandmother, Constance, a woman who has scandalised the community and her transgender daughter Stella, are all outsiders drawn together by circumstance and destiny during the most severe winter for 20 years. They each see in the sun dogs a reflection of their own longing: the embodiment of love past, present and future. But for all of them – and for the reader – the parhelia are also an omen: a harbinger of plummeting temperatures, geological upheaval, an ice age, maybe even the End of Times.
The Sunlight Pilgrims is the latest in a flurry of so-called cli-fi novels, in which global warming replaces the nuclear holocaust as the instrument of our destruction. The genre’s origins may be traced to JG Ballard’s prescient masterpiece The Drowned World, published in 1962, in which melted polar ice caps turned cities into lagoons. But, as anxiety about the impact of greenhouse gases has eaten away at the public consciousness, so the number of novelists using it as a springboard for their fiction has grown. It features strongly as a theme in children’s and Young Adult books – Lionboy (Zizou Corder), Life as We Knew It (Susan Beth Pfeffer) and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Drowned Cities – and in the past decade, has been at the centre of dystopian novels by Ian McEwan (Solar), Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam) and Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad).
If cli-fi authors can be divided loosely into two groups – those who are motivated by a desire to warn about the consequences of climate change and those for whom climate change is a means to explore character and ideas – then Fagan falls into the latter camp. Though she clearly intends to send a message about our reckless plundering of the earth’s resources, the odd passages in which she hovers on the edge of didacticism, are amongst the least interesting in a novel which uses elemental turmoil as a metaphor for emotional turmoil and the epic struggle to endure as a catalyst for self-discovery. This is not, to be fair, an original concept and there are scenes, such as the one in which Stella battles through a hail storm, where the external/internal angst metaphor feels rather obvious and heavy-handed. What lifts the novel way above the quotidian, however, is Fagan’s fascination with light and landscape and her effortless, incandescent prose. In The Sunlight Pilgrims, the earth under siege is not, as you might assume, a relentlessly bleak environment, but one sporadically transformed – by the sun(s), the stars, the aurora borealis – into a place of stark, razor-edged beauty. Where other cli-fi novels offer fetid floodwaters, Fagan gives us glittering haar-frost and ice-flowers.
The deadlier the earth becomes, the more it dazzles. When, towards the end, the three main characters catch sight of thousands of penitentes – tall, thin blades of ice that look like people bowed in prayer – apparently marching across the hillside, the effect is so visceral you feel the bitter chill of the wind against your face, see the glint of sun on snow and share in the sense of powerlessness that comes from gazing at a panorama too vast for the human mind to process. It reminded me of standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon: the way I wanted to do justice to the experience, to consume and preserve its splendour, but, in the end, all that was possible was to look at it and go home.
The Sunlight Pilgrims is steeped in mysticism. In Fagan’s highly-acclaimed debut novel, The Panopticon, Anais Hendricks, a girl who is has spent her life in care, moves through a world populated by mad monks, flying cats and the hallucinogenically-induced ‘Chief the Iguana’ as she struggles to escape her fate. Here too, everyday events are interwoven with myth to create something akin to magical realism. Dylan – who is six feet seven and has never known his father – is said to be a nephilim, the product of the sexual union of a mortal and a fallen angel. On his arm he has a tattoo of Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of both creation and destruction, who wears a ball-gown made out of skulls. Above the skulls are death-wish comets that ‘blaze through the stars intent on total annihilation’. There are also visitations from ghostly figures, most notably Dylan’s grandmother Gunn, who tells Stella about the Sunlight Pilgrims: people who stare at the sun and absorb its energy ‘right down into their chromosomes, so that, in the darkest minutes of winter, they [will] glow and glow and glow’. Later, Dylan shares the story of seventy monks on a remote Scottish island said to have gone mad and thrown themselves off a cliff. All but one died. The surviving monk, Dylan recounts, was discovered on the mountaintop, naked and drinking in the light.
Light in all its myriad, and occasionally apocalyptic, forms is – as the novel’s title suggests – Fagan’s major preoccupation. All her characters are searching for illumination, for ‘clarity, most recently lost’. Dylan is a man who is emerging from the dark. Brought up in Babylon, an arthouse cinema, in Soho, London, he has existed vicariously through flickering images projected onto a screen. Only when he is exposed to the star-studded skies at Clachan Fells, does he learn to live life rather than merely watching it; only when his secrets are given an airing, does he begin to come to terms with his past.
When Dylan first glimpses Constance at the caravan park, she is cleaning in her sleep; he watches spellbound as she hoovers up the road, then reaches up with a rag to ‘polish the moon’. Fagan has a long-standing fascination with all things lunar. In The Sunlight Pilgrims, the moon is variously a reflection of the earth’s vanity and a source of power, allowing Constance to become her true ‘wolf’ self. The image of her, rag in hand, which previously featured in Fagan’s poem, ‘Watching from the Window at 6am on a Comedown’, seems to echo the lines ‘polishing the moon, cultivating clouds, I long for the ancient wind’, written by zen master Eihei Dogen. Is the moon, then, the channel by which Constance – who has defied social convention by having two lovers – gains inner peace and self-knowledge?
Stella is also struggling with her identity. Her father, Alistair, refuses to call her by her new name and school friends mock her transition from male to female. But it is the snow, rather than the any light-form, that helps her achieve self-determination. The scene in which she sledges down a steep slope brings to mind the opening section of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, but unlike the Austrian countess, Marie, Stella has no need to hold on tight. Whizzing through a herd of cattle, she is not only free, but autonomous.
Fagan also explores the conflict between our biology and our sense of self. It is no coincidence that Alistair is a taxidermist, a man who strips the pelts from dead animals. When he returns to his wife, he gives Constance a wolf head and skin she can put on and shed at will. As a transgender girl, Stella is, of course, ill at ease with her own anatomy. She toys with asking her father for a piece of road kill to skin so she can show her school friends ‘where a brain is and a heart is and that a body is just a body’. She wants hormone blockers to stop her voice breaking but is not convinced having her penis cut off will make her any more female. ‘A girl is a girl is a girl is a girl,’ she says.
The Sunlight Pilgrims is very different from The Panopticon so it is interesting that its most distinctive voice is, once again, that of an adolescent trying to find her way. It is Stella’s journey that is the most compelling of the three; her personality the one that imprints itself most strongly on the memory. In the prologue, it is Stella who – inspired by Gunn’s ghost – focuses on the sun dogs and tries to absorb their energy ‘deep into her cells’ in the hope that she can use it as fuel in the dark days to come. This is the question Fagan’s novel seeks to answer: as its protagonists live and love and enjoy fleeting moments of joy, can they soak up enough light to survive the dread chill of winter? Indeed, can any of us?
The Sunlight Pilgrims
William Heinemann, £12.99, ISBN: 978-043023301, PP320