Missionary Impossible

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng – a review

See the source image

There is much to commend in Ng’s ‘novel of the Fae’ about troubled sibling missionaries, Catherine and Laon Helstone, and their strange adventures in Elphane/Arcadia. Ng manages to evoke through her finely-wrought prose the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dense Victorian novel of morality and misadventure; and also the alien, quixotic climate of Faerie. By making her brother and sister protagonists missionaries seeking out to bring the Word of the Lord to the benighted ‘souls’ of this recently revealed Otherworld the novel both aligns with and subverts the colonial project – for the ‘too close’ missionaries are far from without sin, and their mission is futile at worst, at best a metaphysical challenge (do the Fae have souls? what is their place in God’s creation?). Access to the ‘inner lands’ for further proselytising is the main plot McGuffin, but the chief line of desire revolves around Catherine’s unhealthy obsession with her brother – who is a Branwell/Heathcliff/Rochester type. Dark, moody and (to some) irresistible. This is not surprising as Ng clearly riffs upon the Brontë family dynamic and legendarium (which the famous siblings of Haworth created in their younger years). Here, this juvenilia is given the full-bloodied treatment, as Ng feeds it into the mulch of her world-building. The mise-en-scène of each chapter is vividly imagined, but often this seems to be at the expense of narrative traction. Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what is happening – many of the scenes have the feverish intensity and illogic of a dream.  And although the minutiae of Elphane, in particular life in Gethsemane, the Pale Queen’s castle, is exquisitely imagined, the broader brushstrokes of this Secondary World are less convincing: the pendulum sun of the title, the fish of the moon swimming in the sky, and sea whales (which seem to be both made of rickety whicker, yet contain a microcosmic ocean). This no doubt is intended to deliberately subvert the verisimilitude and make the otherworldly realm lack naturalism – and such bold imagery may be original and memorable, it threatens to make the whole edifice a leaky vessel, which I could not fully buy into (rather like CS Lewis’ car-boot Narnia).  Another problem for me was reader-identification. Like a lot of modern fiction I find a lack of relatability – I cannot connect with the main characters, finding it difficult to emotionally invest in them. And narrative traction is missing (for me). I turned the pages out of professional curiosity, not out of urgency. Yet unlike a lot of (modern) fantasy, Ng’s prose aspires to a slightly elevated register, which successfully evokes the music of strangeness (‘a catch of the breath’, as Susan Cooper describes it). Ng’s depiction of Faerie is the best I have seen in contemporary fantasy. She lards each chapter with an epigraph, pastiches written wittily in the style of bombastic Victoriana, or stuffy exegeses. These often evoke the texture of an AS Byatt novel (notably Possession) but are convincingly done. Ng’s academic background and interests (MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies/medieval and missionary theology) clearly inform these, but I found them rather laborious after a while (one can always choose whether to read them or not). Perhaps too much salt, and not enough meat for my taste. Nevertheless, Ng’s first novel bodes well. She is evidently a talented writer with a vivid, and original imagination. I look forward to seeing what she conjures up next.

Kevan Manwaring 31 July 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s