Another summer month, another month of progressing slowly with my 20 Books of Summer. However, I do have two more to write about, both of which I very much enjoyed.
Jenni Fagan’s second novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, #11 of my 20 Books of Summer, is both beautifully-written and oddly disjointed (which, in this case, is not necessarily a bad thing). At least half of it is a sensitive exploration of a trans girl, Stella, coming to terms with her new identity, and dealing with the bullying she experiences from her classmates; the other half brings together a mismatched bunch of adults, including Stella’s mother Constance, as they face up to what looks like the dawn of a new ice age in the northern reaches of Scotland. Some reviewers have tried to neatly link the two – as the world falls apart, so do our set ideas of gender identity! – but I’m not sure this is the most sensible way to read the novel. Indeed, one of the things I liked best about The Sunlight Pilgrims was the way it told two kinds of story that you rarely see side by side; the coming-of-age narrative about being different from the other people around you in terms of race, gender or sexuality, and the survivalist tale about how humanity reacts when the end of the world seems imminent.
The novel suggests that, rather than falling back on our most primitive instincts, such an existential threat might be one way for humans to deal with entrenched prejudice. But, more interestingly, the book also gently reminds us that, even in the face of danger, life goes on; Stella’s struggles are not less important because they’re happening in a time of intense cold and starvation rather than during a period of greater luxury. The Sunlight Pilgrims hence brings a broader scope to the coming-of-age narrative than we usually see, while at the same time, illuminates the end-of-the-world nightmare by reminding us that this doesn’t happen at all at once, that things don’t stop mattering overnight, and that the end of the world doesn’t just happen to one kind of person. If I had a criticism of the novel, it would be that I struggled to engage with the sections written from the point of view of Dylan, Constance’s wannabe lover – but this may just have been because the rest of the book was so compelling. Thematically, this beautiful passage probably sums up the book’s message about bracing yourself for harsh times to come in the hope that you might see the spring: ‘I met someone once who told me you can drink energy from the sun, store it in your cells so you grow strong… She said there were sunlight pilgrims doing it all the time – it’s how they get through the dark, by stashing up as much light as they can’.
N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, #12 of my 20 Books of Summer, also tells us about the end of the world, although in this case we’re firmly situated on a fantasy continent that expects to encounter a series of natural disasters during its turbulent ‘Seasons’, from fungal blights to earthquakes to floods. While the book claims to begin with the world’s end, most of it actually takes us back before this event to explain why it happened. It’s told in three female voices, two of which feel like classic high-fantasy narrators: the small child who exhibits strange powers and is forcibly taken from her home for training, and the young adept who wants to demonstrate her mastery of a magical craft. The third voice, memorably narrated in second person, is perhaps a little less familiar; a mother who has seen her child murdered in front of her by her husband, and is now searching for her husband and her other daughter, while trying to control her own ability to move the earth. I swiftly decided which of these narrators I related to most strongly, which makes the twist that comes near the end of the novel especially thought-provoking. I also enjoyed the inclusive setting of the novel; race and gender differences are marked, but do not seem to be set within a power hierarchy, although Jemisin thoughtfully explores a range of invented cultures.
In another coincidental echo of The Sunlight Pilgrims, The Fifth Season includes a couple of casually-mentioned trans characters, making it clear that the kind of prejudice Stella experiences is completely absent from this world. (This did make me ask the kind of world-building questions that I hope will be expanded upon in the rest of the trilogy; how does this world view gender? Biological sex differences are recognised by the designation of certain individuals as ‘Breeders’, but this isn’t a culturally universal practice on the continent. Sex and gender are clearly still linked by modes of dress and ‘typical’ body shapes – a trans woman is identified as a woman by another character because of the way she dresses, and takes medicine so she doesn’t grow facial hair – so there isn’t a complete separation between the two. All in all, it reads like a world that hasn’t abolished gender but certainly views it fairly flexibly, which is intriguing.) I don’t usually read high fantasy, but this worked well enough for me that I’ll be checking out the next two books in the series.
Upcoming: I’m currently reading Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, an historical novel based on the infamous Lizzie Borden; I’ve just bought Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir of a series of near-death experiences, I Am, I Am, I Am, which I’m looking forward to hugely; and I also want to launch into some more of my 20 Books of Summer. Top of my list is Nicola Griffith’s Hild, but because it looks like the kind of novel that will benefit from time and space, I’m saving it for my trip to the Outer Hebrides in mid-September. Next up, then, will be the two titles my local library has in stock: Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers and Toni Morrison’s Paradise.