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Book Review: Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

Under the Pendulum Sununder the pendulum sun
Jeannette Ng

Angry Robot, 2017
★★★★☆

When I first finished this book, I commented here that I felt like I required an academic article in order to properly understand everything referenced. I am still convinced of that; this Kafkaesque novel is one of the most dense, erudite stories I’ve ever come across. The summary is, I think, a tad misleading, as it seems to hint at some sort of chase, but there is little to no movement at all in Under the Pendulum Sun. The novel takes place entirely in Gethsemane, a classic Gothic castle that perfectly captures the claustrophobia of traditional Gothic settings. And indeed, the influence of the Gothic literary tradition is blatant: from the Brontes to Udolpho, this book delights in paying homage to Gothic classics. Even the writing feels properly Victorian; the amount of research Jeannette Ng put into this book is evident in how realistic the writing and dialogue feel for the time period.

So, what does happen in this book? Well, not very much, which is part of the problem. We follow Catherine Helstone, who embarks on a voyage to Arcadia, the world of the fairies, in search of her brother Laon, who has gone to be a missionary. Upon her arrival in Gethsemane, however, she is surprised to find that Loan is not there, and as she waits for him, her frustration and tedium grow. These feelings are inevitably shared by the reader, as the meandering and slow pace of this Gothic novel unfolds. Eventually, Laon does arrive, and things become much more intriguing from then on, as I, personally, found Cathy and Laon’s relationship fascinating. However, it’s still very, very slow-paced, which, as interviews with Jeannette Ng reveal, was absolutely intentional in order to recreate an “aggressively Victorian” Gothic tone, complete with secrets, heavy mists, claustrophobia, confusion, and general weirdness.

Perhaps that’s just as well, because the plot, such as it is, is not really the point here at all. Under the Pendulum Sun is a novel replete with theological underpinnings that touches heavily on colonialism, imperialism, and the morality of missionary work. As someone completely unfamiliar with Judeo-Christian mythology, many of the references flew completely over my head. I do think one can still enjoy the novel without this knowledge, but the experience will be much less rich. After all, our two main characters are a Victorian missionary and his sister, and unlike many neo-Victorian novels that seem to have simply inserted 21st-century characters into past settings, Cathy and Laon feel like actual Victorians, with their English decorum and religious sensibilities.

In addition to the various theological references and allusions there are also plenty of theological debates discussed, such as the meaning of souls, the actuality of transubstantiation, the parentage of Jesus, the question of Othering, and more. There is also, towards the end of the book when the reality of Arcadia is revealed, musings on the origin of God Himself. These musings wonder at the loneliness of God before his Creation and ponder whether God may have Himself been the last remnant of some inestimable race of beings, defined by mankind only by his one act of Creation. And why has God never again created? These particular musings had chills running down my spine.

This question of how far we understand our reality is a prominent thread running throughout the book. Cathy and Laon wonder if the fae are liars or selective truth-tellers, but the question is never truly answered. The fae queen Mab, after “revealing” the reality of the fae at the end of a masquerade, later tells Cathy that she hadn’t revealed the truth at all, but only revealed another reality, another version of truth. It forces you, as the reader, to question every seeming truth that is revealed to you, which makes this a bit of a frustrating read.

I have to touch on the aspect of this novel that polarized readers, and I suppose this where this review heads a little into spoiler territory. So: Cathy and Laon’s relationship descends into incest. This was probably the most compelling part of the book for me; I’m hugely drawn to consensual brother/sister incest (I already know I’m trash, don’t @ me). Ng mentions that V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic, a Gothic family saga featuring incest, was a huge influence for her, and I have the same experience. I first read Flowers in the Attic when I was twelve or thirteen, at a largely turbulent and formative period of my life, and its effect on me was indelible. So almost immediately, from the sensual way Cathy described her brother, I could tell where this was heading, and I was delighted.

This revelation shed some light on Laon’s character as the tortured Gothic hero with a drinking problem, as it becomes clear that Laon fled England in an attempt to escape his sister and his sin in desiring her. One of the reasons I’m so fascinated by the taboo of consensual incest is that, despite the horror it evokes in most people, it is ultimately an act that hurts no one at all, and so the question of why it is so taboo becomes a complex one. It’s no less fascinating here, whereupon in the wake of murder, Laon’s main concern is still his sinful desire for his sister. Watching him then attempt to reconcile his own sins with his identity as a missionary, a paragon of moral goodness, is incredibly satisfying. I really enjoyed his character, as I did Cathy’s; they are both compelling and realistic, and any time they were together the scene was absolutely electric.

There is so much more I could say about this novel, which I found both maddeningly frustrating and achingly atmospheric. It’s a complex, multilayered story that really deserves to be featured in some sort of academic publication for the sheer complexity and density of its intellectual underpinnings. It’s also an utterly strange but masterful blending of neo-Victorian and secondary world fantasy, culminating in a book that is just plain odd; there is so much weirdness inherent in the story that at some point it becomes futile to try to understand it all. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I finished it, and I’ve been seeking out reviews and interviews in an attempt to break down its meanings. Though I only rated it four stars because I was frustrated by the (intentional) slow pace, length, and weirdness for the sake of weirdness, this is definitely a book that will stay with me for a long, long time. In fact, I don’t think I will ever forget it, and I can only hope to one day write something this strange and sinister.

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