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July 19, 2016

Book Notes - Jenni Fagan "The Sunlight Pilgrims"

The Sunlight Pilgrims

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jenni Fagan's compelling dystopian novel The Sunlight Pilgrims magnificently deals with big themes (climate change and gender) through its sympathetic characters and lyrical storytelling.

The Times Literary Supplement wrote of the book:

"Fagan …explores some big ideas; namely the environment, gender and familial structure. She addresses these themes with an infectious, otherworldly hilarity, assembling an eccentric cast of characters who triumphantly flout convention."

In her own words, here is Jenni Fagan's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Sunlight Pilgrims:

The Clash — "London Calling"

The Sunlight Pilgrims begins in this tiny little art-house cinema in London. Dylan Mac Rae is an overly tall, tattooed, man who was brought up being told he was a nephilim. He wakes hungover in the one room cinema in Soho he grew up in with his mother and grandmother. Outside freak winter conditions are being reported as the beginning of a potential ice-age. Some say it is the end of times. He has a ticket to travel to a tiny caravan his mother has left him, it is over 500 miles away and he has to go now.

"London Calling" by The Clash sings about the ice-age coming, it shows the demise of this amazing city, while the eyes of the world look toward it.

Sigur Rós - "Olsen Olsen"

I wanted to write a novel that sounded like a Sigur Rós album. This song features Ágætis Byrjun in the snow, I think it is stunning.

I adore vast landscapes. I have memories of being surrounded by snow as a child, the wildness of the mountains and the quality of silence in winter. I was obsessed with light quality in winter, and this idea of three suns, and living somewhere that nature is so dominant you cannot help but look at the stars, see the aurora, or connect to the planet in a profound way.

Cœur de pirate — "Wicked Games"

This is a cover of a song by The Weeknd. It has a great stripped back quality. In The Sunlight Pilgrims one of the protagonists is Stella, a goth teen who lives with her mother Constance, a woman who is known for having had two lovers for decades. Stella is going through her transition to female in a small community. She wants to rebel against her mother by being a conventional girl, one who gets married, has kids, lives in a house with bricks, all those kinds of things. However she finds in herself that the daughter of a wolf, regardless of how much she wants to be a lamb, is never going to leave cloven footprints in the snow.

Nina Simone — "Here Comes The Sun"

This song would have to be at the start of The Sunlight Pilgrims when it is not yet certain how far the temperature is going to plummet. Stella meets a woman who tells her about The Sunlight Pilgrims, a group of monks who lived on an island far North of Scotland. They were rumoured to be living on light, drinking light to sustain themselves. They all went mad and died apart from one. The only one who survived appears, possibly, to be related to her. Stella begins to practise drinking light in a hope it will help her to get through winter.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe — "Trouble In Mind"

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the original uber cool guitar playing/writing woman, all the grunge and punk-rock girls, their journey started with her.

This song talks about a character being old enough to change her name. Stella has taken her new name as part of her transition and her mother things she is old enough to do so, even if the doctors need some convincing. It's a hopeful song though, it says the sun will shine, the wind will blow these blues away, time will pass, things will change.

Tori Amos — "Winter"

I love how she sings about her heart getting warm when she thinks of winter. There is something about winter. The starkness. Of course we all have our own winters and Stella is certainly having to learn to deal with change, and learn to value herself regardless of her peers.

Belle & Sebastian — "The Fox In the Snow"

I was working in a record shop in Edinburgh when Belle & Sebastian first came onto the scene, somehow I always associate them with that time in my life. The fox in this song has to tell someone else the truth before it kills them. Its about being true to yourself. The characters in this novel are all doing that for better or worse, with all the challenges it brings.

Boss Hogg — "I Dig You"

Dylan falls in love with Constance the first time he sees her. I wanted to capture that intensity of wanting someone but not knowing if they will want you back. Also, the rarity of just getting who another person is in a way that makes sense, as if you can't imagine what life was like before you knew them.

Jack White — "Love Is Blindness"

I like the heat between Constance and Dylan. It is only made more acute by the plummeting temperatures. There is ice and snow everywhere, these extreme snowstorms coming down over the mountains and they are at the bottom living in these silver bullet caravans. Dylan feels like if he kisses her or they hook up, that it will take away the intensity of his feelings toward her, however sometimes that only makes you want a person more.

The Flaming Lips — "Do You Realize"

Dylan is dealing with the grief of losing his mother, grandmother and family business all in the space of six months. He is really looking outwards for the first time, toward these vast landscapes, the skies, other people. Winter and his recent bereavements are showing him how fleeting life is, with is only making him connect to it in a more intense way.

Nirvana — "Where Did You Sleep Last Night"

This is a cover of a traditional American folk song, it dates back to the 1870s. Lead Belly first brought it to prominence in the 1940s. I love this version, that biting feeling of jealousy and danger when a lover wants to know where his partner has been the night before. While Constance's younger lover is absent, her older lover lives in a cottage up on the mountain and it turns out his story is way more entwined with Dylan's than anyone could have predicted. Dylan simmers with a loathing for this other man at times but if he wants Constance, he still has to accept this other relationship as something that may, or may not, be part of their future.

Wolf Alice — "Blush"

This song makes me think of Stella becoming happy. She's such an amazing character and all I wanted was for her to realise, in some way, how great she is as a human being. Dylan sees that in her straight away, they were both raised by non-conventional females and they have that in common.

Ane Brun — "All My Tears"

This is a song about loss. Each of the characters are having to deal with loss in some profound way and there is a gothic sensibility to the way they look, and how they deal with the inevitability of fate, they can't control nature, they can only live with it.

Bill Ryder-Jones — "Put It Down Before You Break It"

I love this song, its one that you just keep playing it over and over. I can see Stella walking through the snow, thinking of waking up as a different person, i.e. as herself — not how other people see her. She has to stop feeling like she needs male approval though, all girls have to get to that point. She's hurting herself but she can walk away from that. Bill Ryder-Jones is one of my favourite songwriters, I reckon she'd love this.

Hawksley Workman — "Ice Age"

It's all in the title. It's ALL IN THE TITLE.

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis — "Martha's Dream"

This song reminds me of how it would feel in a little cottage, cut off from the world as a vast snowstorm comes down over the mountains, not knowing how or when it will end.

Jenni Fagan and The Sunlight Pilgrims links:

video trailer for the book

Financial Times review
Guardian review
Kirkus review
New Statesman review
New York Times review
Spectator review

Big Issue North interview with the author
Financial Times review
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for The Panopticon
The Skinny interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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