Stuart Kelly: Jenni Fagan’s latest writing makes good on promise

Jenni Fagan. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Jenni Fagan. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Reading her poetry alongside her latest novel shows how well deserved the early plaudits for Jenni Fagan were, writes Stuart Kelly

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan | William Heinemann, £12.99; The Dead Queen Of Bohemia: Collected Poems by Jenni Fagan | Polygon, £9.99

When Jenni Fagan’s debut, The Panopticon, was published in 2012, I rather put my critical reputation on the line by hailing its mixture of eerie surrealism and polemical outrage as the best Scottish debut in a decade. Indeed, I was later on the panel which selected her as Granta magazine’s Best of Young British Novelists for 2013. So it was with a degree of trepidation that I opened her new novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims, wondering if it would bear the weight of expectation. Thankfully, it does. It has the same combination of the weird and the all too real; the same concern for the marginal and the dispossessed. But it plays for higher stakes, and reaps greater rewards.

It begins on “the last day of autumn – perhaps for ever”, with three characters witnessing a triple parhelia – the illusion that there is more than one sun in the sky – in a run-down Scottish caravan park. Dylan MacRae is a tattooed, gin-distilling former owner of a Soho arthouse cinema, who has travelled north with the ashes of his mother and grandmother in Tupperware boxes, having inherited one of the caravans. Constance is a no-nonsense survivalist held at arm’s length by the insular community because she has two lovers, a taxidermist and a traveller, and will forgo neither of them. Stella, Constance’s daughter, is a sarcastic young goth. She is also, we soon learn, transitioning from her birth gender. Set in the near future, ecological catastrophe is plunging Britain into a new Ice Age, and as society buckles and petrifies, the breakdown of the state poses a particular dilemma for Stella. Without hormone therapies she will soon start to go through puberty: her voice will break, and wisps of hair sprout on her chin and upper lip.

The issue of Stella’s transition is done with wonderful sensitivity and expansive empathy, and plays into the novel’s wider concerns. How does the past – our decisions, our genes, our upbringing – determine us? To what extent can we fashion ourselves? The protagonist of The Panopticon was an individual with no family; The Sunlight Pilgrims is about having too much family. It invites comparison with a novel such as E Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News or Sara Taylor’s wonderful The Shore. There is a little wink to the reader about Fagan’s own aesthetic when Dylan reminisces about his childhood watching “Tom and Jerry, Man Ray, Herzog and Lynch, Besson and Bergman”. But if I were to suggest a fantasy director for the novel, it would have to be Guy Maddin, whose similarly estranged fables, The Saddest Music In The World or The Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs, seem in key with Fagan’s work.

The title comes from a legend, which links Dylan to Constance and Stella in a curious manner, about a group of ascetic monks, one of whom manages to live on sunlight alone, becoming a form of human battery. The philosopher Simone Weil entertained a similar idea, about humans evolving a kind of chlorophyll, in her late illness. Weil came to mind often while reading The Sunlight Pilgrims, especially her concept of “metaxu” – “every separation is a link” – and her idea of modern “uprootedness”.

Reading Fagan’s collected poems alongside the novel is instructive. The third section, “Urchin Belle”, features caravan parks; the poem “5 am”, with a woman “hoovering the road” and “trying to polish the moon”, is transposed wholesale into the second chapter of the novel. “The Empty Vase” has a person “drinking light”. Many of the anguished, alienated poems, such as “Instruction Manual for Suicidal Girls (boys, trolls & troglodytes)” , are clearly the work of the author of The Panopticon. Fagan favours a light, free-verse form, sometimes with a single word comprising the line, which bears comparison to the Beat work of Ferlinghetti and Corso. Although personally I prefer the knottier, riddling poetry of Lowell and Berryman, Fagan handles this more elastic form with skill. The very best of the poems – “Exit Stage Left, Admitting The Abyss”, “What Happened?”, “In Woods You Wait”, “Wonder Walnut” and the cadenza-like “I Wanna Be Your Dog” – are memorable and visceral, with deft changes of register. The uncompromising attitude is best expressed in “The Happening”: “This life which happened at me / I happened right back at it”.

There is, in both The Sunlight Pilgrims and The Dead Queen Of Bohemia, an almost mythic quality. The Panopticon showed that Fagan can be brave and bold; these books also show she can dissect tenderness and graciousness. She can move from black humour (“– And your Dad? she asks. – My mum didn’t catch his name, he says.”) to haunting poetry (“she’ll have to go through the darkest parts of herself – between the pulsing aorta with its rivers of blood – to her heart, where there is a tiny little door to for ever”). I cannot wait to see what she does next.