But for all our stories, our imaginations were small and provincial. For the talk of tropics and deserts, our childish fictions filled them with the same oaks and aspens that grew in our garden. We built on their landscape, exotic buildings that were just our little whitewashed church in Birdforth in disguise.1Kindle, loc. 34-36
The moment I read the back cover copy of Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun, I knew that I had to read it; how could I possibly resist a novel about Christian missionaries in fairyland? How could anyone?
And I wasn’t disappointed. From the opening pages, this book pulled me into its spell. This is a delightfully weird and creepy story and, in many ways, Under the Pendulum Sun is a logical extension of 19th century gothic novels.
The basic shape of the plot is this: Miss Catherine Helstone travels to Arcadia in hopes of finding her brother, the Reverend Laon Helstone. When she arrives at Gethsemane, he’s nowhere to be found and none of the inhabitants–Miss Ariel Davenport, Benjamin Goodfellow, the mysterious Salamander–will tell her where he is or when he is expected back. They’ll only tell her that it will be soon.
Cathy is essentially a prisoner within Gethsemane; she is told that if she ventures outside its walls, she may be in mortal danger and that while she is within Gethsemane, she is safe–for her blood relationship to her brother protects her.
As time passes, Cathy explores the castle, sometimes with Miss Davenport and sometimes alone. Miss Davenport clearly knows more than she’s telling. On one of their excursions, she takes Cathy to a garden, where Cathy finds a chapel in disarray, much to Miss Davenport’s distress.
Benjamin Goodfellow is the sole fae convert to Christianity and he often approaches Cathy with questions about their shared faith, which she tries to answer as best she can, in the absence of her brother. Benjamin accepts her answers for the same reason she is protected from harm: her blood relationship to her brother. (There is a lot of talk about blood.)
There’s a lot of theology and discussion about faith in this book, which I found quite enjoyable. A lot of musing about what the fae actually are and if they have souls, Cathy’s quest to find the previous missionary’s journals and what she finds therein, which then drives much of what happens later.
I had been taught to tame my wild impulses and desires that had agitated me to pain. I had folded it with my soul and learnt to drink contentment like you would a poison. Drop by drop, day by day. Until it became tolerable.2Kindle, loc. 277-279
Under the Pendulum Sun is narrated by Cathy in a close first person POV. The reader is quite intimate with her thoughts, which often have a feverish quality to them–particularly when she’s thinking about her brother. Cathy really loves her brother.
I enjoyed every single one of the Gothic novel clichés that I was able to identify (and I know that there are many I missed). The Helstone siblings are clearly modeled on the Brontës, complete with hailing from Yorkshire and having an extensive imaginary world which they populated not only with people but also with meticulously crafted miniature books and newspapers. The Salamander is Gethsemane’s mysterious housekeeper who, conveniently, is under a geas, Benjamin Goodfellow has Dickon-esque quality to him for all that he is fae, and Miss Davenport is not exactly the most forthcoming ladies companion there could be. And there’s a mandwoman in the attic. I mean, of course there is.
And if Hamilton‘s more your thing, Ng has you covered there, too.
When Cathy wearies of her confinement and escapes to the moors outside Gethsemane–she comes upon Laon, wounded and accompanied by a great hound with glowing eyes. Seriously. It’s amazing.
Laon is a proper Gothic hero, brooding and not quite handsome but compelling–to both the reader and to Cathy. He’s incredibly upset that Cathy has come to the Faelands and insists that she go back to England as soon as she can. Cathy, naturally, refuses.
The fae are also incredibly weird and off-kilter, particularly the Pale Queen and the fae who come to Gethsemane for a winter celebration. There are clues about the larger shape of the story strewn throughout Cathy’s interactions with the fae–but I’d rather not give away too much of the plot. For me, a lot of the fun of this book was the slow realization around where everything was headed and then seeing how they actually got there.
You doubt the truth of your mind and your memories.3Kindle, loc. 4294
There are just so many things I found interesting about this book: the way the fae use truth as a weapon and use humans’ self-deception against them, the second half of the book involves the Pale Queen gaslighting Cathy and Laon into believing a falsehood while telling no lies herself. It’s a neat narrative trick to pull off, because by this point, the reader shold have an inkling of what’s going on, and why, but Cathy hasn’t a clue. This is one of my favorite narrative tricks with a close first person POV and it’s always a delight to see it executed well; it undermines the reliability of the narrator in a way that complicates the overall work.
I wasn’t quite sure how Ng was going to resolve everything in a satisfactory way, but she did. Under the Pendulum Sun is fantastic and I can’t wait to see what Jeannette Ng writes next.
Laon laughed at that, and this time there was less bitterness and more joy. I joined him, and though my own laughter sounded stilted, I knew it would come easier, with time.
“Maybe it’s going to be nothing but fish,” said Laon.
“And sea whales.”
“Nothing to fear there then.”
“Either way,” said Laon, beaming now. I returned the smile and I knew what he was going to say next. “We should find out.”4Kindle, loc. 5161