“Accidents of birth should not be the determinant of outcomes in life”, writes Anthea Simmons in her acknowledgements to Burning Sunlight, where she highlights the daily struggles faced by many millions around the world. Struggles that we fail to understand and empathise with – whether there be female education, climate injustice, or access to clean water.
Burning Sunlight: a simple narrative of complex issues
Like many excellent authors of young adult books before her, Simmons adroitly constructs a simple narrative that interweaves some of the most complex issues of our times: environmental injustice, extremism, inter-generational conflicts, eco-anxiety and grief. But this is not a whistle-stop tour of these issues, nodding briefly as we pass, but rather a detailed and close look at how these issues impact families and friends.
Zaynab, the main protagonist, uproots her life following the loss of her mother in Somaliland – not Somalia as she is at pains to point out! – and journeys with her climate scientist father to arrive in Devon. There, as the ‘outsider’, she attempts to find a sense of belonging in a new school, culture and environment. She embarks on an emotional journey, trying to make sense of what she sees as her father’s betrayal of her mother’s memory, as well as finding a sense of belonging and identity.
The title of the novel, ‘burning sunlight’, is revealed in conversation between characters to refer to the burning of fossil fuels and peat in particular. There are timely parallels with environmental activism in the text and the rise of youth-centred environmental movements globally in the last few years. Staged ‘die-ins’ at science museums take place in the text, with the figures of the Red Brigade of Extinction Rebellion being used symbolically, as well as literally, by Simmons. A brief look at media coverage of COP26 would reveal just how timely Simmons’ novel is at tapping into the climate zeitgeist.
Clarion calls for climate activism
There are strong clarion calls for environmental activism in the novel, with characters declaring that, “We all need to do something before it’s too late” and “The world is listening to us”. There are sections in the text where the idea of what it means to be an activist is discussed and explored – with the message that events happen to someone, somewhere, and that it all our responsibility to help in any way we can, even if that means raising our voice in contexts that demand silence from us.
A strong religious theme threads through the novel, through the prayers and actions that the main protagonists follow. But the central tenet of the novel is not that of Islam, or of Christianity; instead it is of the overarching duty and responsibility that we owe to fellow humans. The quotation often attributed to Stephen Grellet, lies at the heart of the novel and echoes through the many characters:
“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Or more commonly phrased as, “Any good that I may do, let me do it now. For I may not pass this way again”.
Burning Sunlight is a novel about connections, identity and having the bravery to find your voice, as well as lifting up others. The novel challenges us and reminds us that, “It’s easy to do good things when they are also what you want to do anyway”.
If Burning Sunlight was just a book about the environment, then potentially this could limit its audience. Rather, the novel is more about the need to build bridges, in order to find your way home.
You can find Anthea’s books including Burning Sunlight here