Review: Under the Pendulum Sun

The heroine of Jeanette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun is Cathy Helstone, the Victorian sister of Laon, a missionary to Fairyland who’s stopped answering her letters. Funded – as she thinks – by the missionary society that sent him, Cathy braves the dangerous journey to Fairyland to find him.

But Under the Pendulum Sun is no fairytale; its ancestors are Jane Eyre and Ann Radcliffe, not the faerie-tinged historical fantasies of Susanna Clarke and Zen Cho. So we actually see very little of Fairyland: pretty much all of the novel’s action takes place in the thoroughly Gothic castle the fae have granted to Laon for his missionary activities, Gethsemane.

It was more castle than manor, a knot of spires and flying buttresses atop a jagged hill. Stone leaned against stone in a bizarre edifice, with nothing but scorn to the very concept of aesthetic consistency and structural purpose.

Like all classic Gothic castles, Gethsemane is an impossible tangle of corridors and passages, strange noises, rooms you can only find once, and ominous ancient objects. It’s threatening in its unknowability; but, as the novel wears on, it becomes simultaneously the only source of familiarity in the treacherous landscapes of Fairyland:

When I finally returned to Gethsemane, the castle was ablaze with light. It was a beacon above the mists, and I saw it far, far before I reached its gatehouse.

That’s not the only Gothic trope the novel uses, of course: it’s positively stuffed with doubles, changelings, madwomen, unintelligible diaries, mysterious staff who can’t or won’t explain anything, forbidden desires, and things that look real but aren’t. In other words, it plays extensively with ideas of truth and disguise: a recurring theme is that the fae tell the truth only when it will hurt more than a lie. As in many Gothic novels, the castle is a place where the dark side of society bubbles to the surface; a place of illusion which, paradoxically, reveals truths that can’t be spoken in the Victorian England it mirrors.

I don’t really feel, though, that Ng is doing anything particularly interesting with all this Gothic paraphernalia: Under the Pendulum Sun is missing that oppressive weight that characterises novels like Jane Eyre or The Mysteries of Udolpho or Rebecca, that particular desperate overwriting concealing and revealing a void of meaning. While its plot is uncanny – that is, uncanny things happen to the characters – the novel itself isn’t: it doesn’t encode at a textual level the profound and deeply threatening paradox of a house that doesn’t work like at a house should. And for me, that’s key to the success of the Gothic: that link between house and text, the sympathetic magic by which the threat of the house becomes the threat of the word. Without that link, Gothic becomes melodrama.

And yet: there is strangeness here. As the house’s name implies, Under the Pendulum Sun is deeply interested in Christian theology – and as Abigail Nussbaum points out, it’s unusual in making that theology a fundamental part of its worldbuilding rather than a flawed ideology. And, actually, what it does with that theology – reworking the Christian myth to take account of the fae (I won’t spoil the details, but Lilith is involved) – feels subversive: the Helstones’ theories, as they gather more truths about the world around them, are heretical, and writing that back into a novel that’s very deliberately pastiching the voice of a Victorian novel feels like a reclamation of history.

Why’s that important? I think we can read Under the Pendulum Sun as partly a novel about colonialism: to the Victorians, Fairyland is there to be exploited; Laon Helstone is literally there to convert what he sees as godless savages. So the Helstones’ work of creating heresy, of writing the fae into the Christian narrative not as people going to hell but as something else – that’s a decolonisation of Western Christianity. Which, you only have to look at America’s Bible Belt to realise that’s intensely relevant work.

For me, Under the Pendulum Sun didn’t quite click; the Gothickry isn’t quite right, and that’s so central to the affect of the novel that I can’t overlook it. And it takes just a little too long to signal to readers that you actually need to pay attention to this theological stuff, it’s not just furniture. But there’s plenty that’s fascinating here, and I suspect readers who aren’t quite as obsessed with how the Gothic works as I am will probably enjoy it a whole lot more.

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