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Review: The Sunlight Pilgrims - Jenni Fagan

Genre: Literary Fiction, dystopian

Published: William Heinemann, march 2016 My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The simplest way of describing my experience with this book woud probably be: "mixed". At times it was incredible, at others I felt such disconnect that I struggled to get through it. This will probably be a longwinded review, so bear with me.

This book and I were off to a great start. Not only has it been blessed with one of the most stunning covers I have held in my hands this year, the novel starts off on a very strong prologue, with the characters staring at a phenomenon in the sky known as “Parhelia”; an optical illusion where two mirror images of the sun seem to be present besides the real one. Not only is this already a very powerful image, it perfectly sets the scene, the atmosphere and introduces the characters. In a way; the prologue reads like a miniature summary of what is to come in the rest of the book. It’s extremely memorable and I truly expected to be in for a 5-star read.

My excitement soon tempered however, as a came across some problems. I will go into them, before I go into the positive. Some of the minor problems I had include the following:

- Lack of quotationmarks. I realize this is a very petty issue, but it really annoyed me. At times I was very confused as to what was internal or external dialogue, let alone who was speaking. I don’t understand why the author would chose not to include them. Maybe it was meant as an artistic choice, but I don’t see how the book benefited from this. - Dylans “grief storyline”. I’m a sucker for good grief stories, but I did not feel it with this one. The author doesn’t pass up on opportunities to tell us that he is grieving. The problem is she doesn’t show us. There was no emotional connection for me, and it came to a point where I was tired of hearing her repeat it. - Speaking of repeating: repetition. As I said: some of the images, such as the Parhelia, in this book are very visually powerful. The problem is that they are mentioned multiple times, to the point where they lose their power. For example: if I hear one more time that Constance is “polishing the moon” I may throw a fit. Seriously though: it’s a shame, as if they were used less frequently it would have been much more potent.

The biggest problem however can be summarized in one question:

Why has the world ended again?

I kept on asking myself this during the reading process. Both from an internal (within worldbuilding) as from an external (from a writing perspective) it didn’t make the most sense. From an internal logic point of view, there are some inconsistencies in the worldbuilding. E.g. where are these people getting their food/fresh water/fuel from if all has supposedly frozen to death? Why has ice molten to the point that people are falling trough it, even though it’s -20 degrees outside. I can almost hear you thinking: that’s not the point of the book. It’s about the people! And I agree. Which brings me to my argument why it doesn’t make sense from a writing point of view that the world has ended. In my opinion, the books weaknesses lie exclusively in the postapocalyptic part. If you were to take this setting out entirely, you are left with a solid coming of age novel with a portrayal of a transgender character that I found very strong. In its heart it is just that: a contemporary coming of age novel, and I would have loved to read it as such. In my opinion the post-apocalyptic setting didn’t add anything, and merely took the attention away from the very strong core of the book.

I would like to stress again that this strong core is absolutely there! The writingstyle is superb (Jenni Fagan is a poet and it shows), the characters are interesting and their interactions were a joy to read. As a coming of age story, it’s original and could have been a 4+ star read, and I do feel a little bad for rating it lower. I see how the book could have benefitted from the setting, but the execution left some to be desired, for the reasons I mentioned above.

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