Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared while bringing the Gospels to the Dark Continent – not Africa, but Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae.
Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey to that extraordinary land, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.
Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun marries two powerful streams in British fiction; the gothic, a trend that goes back to the 18th century, with fairy tales, a genre that goes back much further. At first glance these two might sit uneasily together; does Ng make them fit?
Gothic is, in no small part, a matter of atmosphere; whether the Northern faded grandeur and isolation of Crimson Peak or the baroque claustrophobia of Mervyn Peake’s magnificent Gormenghast, that is the foremost marker of the gothic. It is one Ng embraces wholeheartedly from the very opening of the novel; we are introduced to Catherine, Under the Pendulum Sun‘s protagonist, as she reaches the strangeness and abstraction of the Faelands. The opening of the novel is then concerned with her journey to the preacher’s manse of Gethsemane; a pile of stone that simultaneously seems to have been altered over the years, and to have been built in one go with the appearance of great age. Empty, slightly decaying, and understaffed, Ng’s chosen setting partakes of a number of gothic tropes, reworking them through excellent language and a powerful, although not light, touch that really does create the horror innate to the genre; this continues in those few sections that take place outside the castle, where the moors or forests are twisted versions of ones familiar to us, and that twist is simultaneously dreamlike and nightmarish.
The plot is also suitably baroque; Under the Pendulum Sun concerns Catherine’s attempts to first find her brother, and then to discover what happened to the previous missionary to the fairies. Ng, loathe to leave no gothic tropes unused, also threads a forbidden romance into the mix, which burns slowly and alters the tenor of every character interaction between the only two humans in the novel, Catherine and her brother. The different plot elements are incredibly smartly done, and Ng wears her education lightly but effectively: events hinge in no small part on a matter of longstanding theological debate, and the degree to which theology is threaded through the novel as a lived concern cannot be overstated. The gothic cliches in the conclusion come thick and fast, but are well written, and Under the Pendulum Sun always makes sure the groundwork is laid for them.
Ng is less strong in her character work. Catherine is brilliant, and her emotional state decaying and fraying across the course of the novel is captured brilliantly, as are her varied desires in conflict with each other; Under the Pendulum Sun has a protagonist whose voice is never lost. Laon, however, seems a shallow character; he is a cipher for the plot, in no small respect, and without a strong sense of who he is throughout the book. The smaller parts are equally mixed fare; Mr Benjamin, the gnome gardener convert (whose mine was closed by the Lady of Iron), is a brilliantly curious little character, whose constraints and theological probing are at times hilarious and at times deeply moving. Ariel Davenport, on the other hand, is a rather thin character; Ng relies on Catherine’s attachment to Ariel to stand in as a proxy for reader attachment, and Under the Pendulum Sun suffers a bit for it.
The other place Under the Pendulum Sun suffers is stylistically. Ng has a beautiful, slightly baroque style, and a wide and fascinating imagination, encompassing sea whales and semiotic moths. At times, however, her style could have done with a tighter edit; there are points at which the text becomes repetitious or unclear, and occasional moments where the fantastic claustrophobia of the text becomes less an intentional trap of the gothic and more a frustration to the reader.
In the end, while Under the Pendulum Sun does have some shortcomings, Jeannette Ng has written an utterly brilliant gothic novel, using all the tropes and cliches of the genre and rising above them in magnificent style. I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: Jeannette Ng is a friend.
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