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Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
4.5
Book Name: Under the Pendulum Sun
Author: Jeannette Ng
Publisher(s): Angry Robot
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Historical Fantasy / Gothic
Release Date: October 3, 2017 (US) October 5, 2017 (UK)

“So desperate are you to speak to us that you see us everywhere. You look across your borders, your walls, and instead of your neighbours, you see us. As your ships sail further and countries and continents discover each other, you see not each other. You see us. You want to see us.”

Jeannette Ng’s sumptuous debut Under the Pendulum Sun is a wonderfully complex creature. It is at once a sprawling gothic novel, a brilliant alternate history exploring beliefs and mythology of the fae, a meditation on Christian theology, and a brutal deconstruction of missionary practices and colonialism. Starting with the high concept idea of Victorian missionaries visiting fairyland, Ng weaves together all these different threads into a meticulously constructed whole. While this might suggest that Under the Pendulum Sun is dry and academic, thanks to Ng’s beautiful prose and sparklingly imaginative worldbuilding, the novel is a joy to read.

Against a backdrop of uncanny gothic mansions, glorious fae weirdness and imaginatively drawn characters, Ng charts the inevitable damnation of her doomed protagonists as the Queen of Fairie mercilessly exposes the hypocrisy and self-absorption of colonial British missionaries. Catherine Helstone’s beloved brother Laon has travelled to Arcadia to try to bring the gospel to the world of the fairies. After his increasingly cryptic and reserved letters home stop all together, Catherine ventures into fairyland to find out what’s happened to him. Upon arrival, she finds herself entangled in a series of mysterious events and sinister happenings, and as her brother returns with Queen Mab’s retinue following fast behind, Catherine undergoes a series of revelations that threaten her sense of self and her sanity.

Under the Pendulum Sun is a triumph of imaginative worldbuilding. Epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter draw on folklore, fiction about the fae, and pure invention to describe a world in which Captain Cook discovered a passage to fairyland on his last voyage, allowing Arcadia to interact with Victorian Britain. Drawing on works as diverse as the Child Ballads, the Brothers Grimm, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s superlative Kingdoms of Elfin (1977) and Shakespeare, Ng’s knowledge of fairy mythology is detailed and impressive, allowing her to create a world dense with allusion but still very much her own.

Her love of fairy lore allows her to create new and inventive takes on the fae—in particular there is a wonderful scene with Queen Mab learning to sew that forever sticks in one’s mind—whilst at the same time keeping true to the core of fae legends so that they are appropriately creepy, unsettling and otherworldly. From the sinister gothic mansion of Golgotha, where the Helstones reside for most of the narrative, to the mist-shrouded moors inhabited by sea whales, to the lamp swinging across Arcadia’s sky that give the novel its name, Under the Pendulum Sun is packed with wonderfully inventive and breathtakingly magical elements.

Ng clearly also knows her gothic literature. Under the Pendulum Sun takes great delight in its indulgence of gothic tropes, from the doomed brother/sister with a shameful family secret to the crumbling shifting mansion and the mad woman in the attic, which it sets up in order to explore and interrogate. Nothing here is quite as it seems, nor is anyone precisely who they say they are. The novel is able to have fun with all its gothic trappings, which are worthy of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), whilst deconstructing the Victorian society the main characters come from. The ontological doubt thrown onto Catherine reflects how her society sees her as less than fully human because of her gender, whilst allowing her and her brother the excuse they need to explore their repressed sexuality with devastating consequences. Knowledge is revealed to be dangerous not inherently, but because of the damage it is able to inflict on the Helstone’s cosy, self-absorbed little world.

The novel is also a fascinating exploration of theology. Catherine and Laon argue about whether or not the fae are included either in Adam’s original fall from grace in the Garden of Eden or in Jesus’s redemptive death for mankind. The mysterious fate of the previous missionary is cleverly tied to how a classic piece of fairy lore interacts with the transubstantiation of the bread and the wine in holy communion.

The fae in the novel are connected at various points to the Apocrypha, the extra books of the bible whose canonicity is argued over by Biblical scholars. However, her interest and fascination with these details of theology and philosophy never obscure the passion and the power of Ng’s arguments. Mab points out that Laon’s sermons only work because the unconverted fae exist as a comparative Other against which the Christian true believers can be compared against; by welcoming the select saved in, the natives who are willing to Anglicise themselves and accept the colonialist British culture, the Church is making a moot point about who amongst the indigenous peoples are left out.

Under the Pendulum Sun is a powerful dissection of the colonial arrogance of the missionaries. Catherine and Laon are trapped in a mock-gothic mansion for their own safety. They are all too ready to believe that the fae are subhuman—Mab tricks them into seeing the fae as animals and they jump to the conclusion. This allows Catherine to inflict violence on one of the fae under the excuse that they don’t have souls, all to defend the purity of her precious brother by preventing him from committing the violence. As in many post-Heart of Darkness narratives, the Helstone’s view of Arcadia is occluded by the fact that they can only see it as an arena over which the redemption of a white man’s soul must take place. In the end, they can only look out at the glorious expanse of fairyland and see their own Christian hell, because these are the only terms on which they are able to engage with it.

In turns frightening, humerous, inventive and witty, Under The Pendulum Sun is astonishingly assured for a debut novel. It is intelligent and ambitious, as well as being a delight to read. I can only look forward eagerly to whatever Jeannette Ng writes next.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Sam F. says:

    I really enjoyed the review – very well written and concise. I’m excited to pick this one up!

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