Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 26, 2016

Sannah and the Pilgrim (2014), by Sue Parritt

Sannah and the Pilgrim

I’m a bit late to the party with this one, the author has just published the sequel, Pia and the Skyman. 

Update 20/4/17 : Pia and the Skyman was commended for the Christina Stead Fiction Award 2016 in the National Literary Awards of The Fellowship of Australian Writers.

Disclosure: Sannah and the Pilgrim, however, has been on my radar for a while, because I know the author.  In the days when I was an active member of the Mordialloc Writers Group led by writer Mairi Neil, I used to listen to Sue Parritt read excerpts from this novel at the monthly workshops.  It fascinated me, because in those years before its publication in 2014, Sannah and the Pilgrim was the first book I knew of which was tackling climate change as an issue, long before anyone had thought of a #CliFi hashtag for the genre.

The world of the 25th century created by Parritt is more grim than any of the predictions we’ve seen, but it’s based on an entirely possible situation.  Australia is reduced to desert, with agriculture possible only in the northern states, peopled by the brown-skinned descendants of environmental refugees from Pacific islands lost to the rising seas.  Power rests in the hands of the Whites down south, and they enforce submission to this apartheid with an arrogant military force.

Women are a strong, capable moral force in this novel.  Sannah is part of a covert resistance group called the Women’s Line, and at the time the novel opens their project is to sabotage the building of desert prisons for political prisoners.  When a stranger calling himself Kaire arrives on her domestep* she is wary: he might be an escapee hoping for safe passage to a more congenial destination – Aotearoa (New Zealand), or he might be a spy…

(*The community lives in domes, built to protect them from the pitiless sun).

Besides her role in the community as its Storyteller disseminating a whitewashed history, Sannah is also sexually available to the disgruntled White troopers assigned to supervise the community.  Unabashed about sex, Sannah uses this situation to elicit useful scraps of information to pass down the Line, but like many an apparent collaborator she sometimes encounters hostility from judgemental others.  When she ends up in bed with Kaire, however, doping him to search through his belongings, she finds herself falling in love with him, whilst never quite able to trust him.  (Spoiler alert: this is not a soppy romance).

Kaire, for his part, seems to share Sannah’s values and is appalled by this version of apartheid.  He offers to use his White privilege (and some superior technology) to support the cause.  It is not until late in the book that the reasons for his occasionally bizarre behaviours are revealed, and the mystery surrounding him sustains the thread of distrust and uncertainty that is often pervasive in novels of resistance or rebellion.

Sannah and the Pilgrim is not my usual reading fare, but the scene-setting avoids the heavy-handed use of techno-geekery:

In the northern region of the Brown Zone, another journey had just begun.  A silver solar train comprising a driver capsule and six passenger modules sped through dry grassland dotted with low scrub.  Since leaving Terminal 4, the train had made good progress, the storms and torrential rains of the previous week having passed out to sea and no further inclement weather was expected for at least five nights.  By that time the passengers would be safe beneath desert sands, neither they nor their jailers concerned by weather conditions.

The mood remained calm in the passenger modules, prisoners subdued by the prospect of a protracted journey to an unknown destination.  They had long suspected the far northern prison domes were to be closed.  No new inmates had arrived during the previous year and routine maintenance had not been carried out.  Prison troopers had refused to be drawn into discussion of possible alternative accommodation even for several sachets of the drug moonlight.  Rumours abounded: removal to an island prison, further trials in the south, implementation of the death penalty.  This latter, the prisoners now considered unlikely: Governor An-il would not have authorised a costly journey if they were to be eliminated. (p. 171)

Events arising from this train journey coincide with violence against Sannah, and the novel moves to a brave conclusion.

Sannah and the Pilgrim is a straightforward chronological narrative, with credible characterisation and convincing dialogue.  Futurist features are simply named and it is up to the reader’s imagination to supply images of what a transporter, a communicator or a red prison robe tight around her neck might be.  I thought the novel was just a little longer than it needed to be, but unlike most speculative fiction (which usually lands on my abandoned shelf after the first 50 pages) this one sustained my interest throughout because of the author’s focus on social justice issues and the power of truth.

For truth is like the ocean, sometimes it laps our shores, sometimes it storms our defences, nightly it ebbs and flows, but no human being can ever curb its motion. (p.262)

‘Sannah and the Pilgrim’ was Commended in the FAW Christina Stead Award, 2015.

You can find out more about Sue at her website.

Author: Sue Parritt
Title: Sannah and the Pilgrim
Publisher: Odyssey Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781922200143
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Sannah and the Pilgrim


  1. Sounds great. I want to read more Aust SF and I’ll definitely buy this one. Just have to choose the daughter/birthday which gets it back to me soonest.


    • *chortle* I bet they are wise to you by now!


  2. This wouldn’t be my usual kind of reading either but it sounds not too far into the realm of fantasy that it loses the grip on reality that I prefer.


    • It’s curious that some books somehow manage to transcend their genre… I haven’t read enough speculative fiction to be able to identify quite how Parritt has achieved it in this case.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lisa, I put in an order for Sannah and the Pilgrim but my bookshop can only get it from the USA. If you could put me on to the author or the publisher I’ll buy both. Is that too much? You’re allowed to tell me off in public.


    • I haven’t got contact details for Sue, but I know someone who has. I’ll get in touch with her – is it ok if I give her your email?


      • Yes certainly, thanks.


        • Done. (Wonders of the electronic age, eh?)


          • I’ll give you an update when the deal is done. Book review will have to wait till Nov probably, as I pass one or both books through family as presents.


  4. […] read Sannah and the Pilgrim. I attempted to buy it after reading Lisa of ANZLL’s review (here) but my local bookshop could only source it from the US. Lisa was good enough to put me in touch […]


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