Jeannette Ng’s debut novel Under the Pendulum Sun starts like many good fairy stories do: with a journey. In the mid-19th century, Catherine Helstone spends six weeks on a ship off the north English coast trying to get well and truly lost, for this is the only way to find the Faelands of Acadia. She’s trying to reach her brother Laon, a missionary for the Anglican church, who went to Acadia to replace Reverend Roche, the first missionary to the fae, who died under mysterious circumstances. She set out after she grew alarmed at the terseness of her brother’s letters and their general tone, but her ultimate arrival in the fae world is a vision of wonders: the chalk white cliffs so much more vivid than Dover, the bustling sea port of Sesame peopled with all manner of creatures, the fish of the moon swimming through the sky.
Catherine has little time to consider the wonders of Acadia before she’s whisked off through a land of mist to Gethsemane (both the name of the mission, and the name of the garden in which Jesus faced his last night of doubt before the crucifixion). It is a tumbledown place, an architectural magpie building of Norman forts and Gothic flying buttresses, which feels both large and small, looming and choking. Her brother is not in residence, so Cathy is left for weeks and months with the strange company of Miss Ariel Davenport, who is not Miss Davenport, really, but her changeling, and Mr. Benjamin, a gnome who has heretofore been the only Christian convert of the Gethsemane mission. The house is also inhabited by a housekeeper called only The Salamander, but she is an unseen and mysterious presence.
Catherine has little to do at the mission but spook at shadows and worry. Though it might sound like I’m making fun of her disquiet, I’m not. Everything in the faelands is a little bit off, if not monstrously, terrifyingly wrong. The sun itself moves on a pendulum over what must be, by logic, a flat earth, pinned to the firmament by impossible cables and swinging over an impossible landscape. But the worst things, the strangest things, are the things that mostly aren’t strange at all: Miss Davenport, who rattles on like a young English girl (that is, after all, what she was raised), until she says something off-handed that startles with her changeling nature; a diary of Reverend Roche’s, with a gloss in another hand; a moonlit chapel found once, then vanished. Real is not quite real in Acadia. It’s a puzzle Cathy cannot solve. (Indeed, she is told several times not to try.) (She tries anyway.)
But the true tests are the ones of faith. Both Catherine and her brother are the children of a reverend, and Laon is following in his father’s footsteps. The church’s scriptures and apocrypha are a shared language between the siblings, and deeply felt. The gnome Mr. Benjamin, the only Christian fae, puts dozens of theological questions to Catherine. She tries to demur to her absent brother, but they are hard questions, the kind for which there are no easy answers. The kind of questions that cast doubt just as surely as the changeable reality of Acadia.
She and Mr. Benjamin resort often to Jesus’ parables—the mustard seed, the parable of the sower—but none quite work in a world where what we think of natural processes, from the change of the seasons to the passage of the moon, must be deliberately managed. Change in Acadia is an act of will, not the result of the divine clockworks of Victorian Christians, rote and predictable. How does one act as missionary in a world that twists the metaphors of the Savior’s parables into something unrecognizable and strange? Under the Pendulum Sun reminded me of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in a way: this period piece, bound by the social and religious strictures of the time, but rendered odd by the confounding stretch of magic.
Eventually, Laon returns, on the same day that Catherine’s enforced claustrophobia drives her out into the forbidden garden. They meet in the mist, and Laon cannot believe his eyes: Cathy must be yet another fetch sent to tempt him by the Pale Queen. Though delighted by her brother’s return, Cathy is nevertheless frightened by the changes wrought upon him by this strange land and its queen. Like everything in the land of the fae, he’s not quite right: standoffish and distant, unsober and morose. He wants Cathy well out of it—out of Acadia, out of this uncanny valley. She’s steadfast in her determination to remain at the mission. His reintroduction into the garden of Gethsemane works its own kind of parable, in the shifting landscape of a pendulum sun and a lantern fish moon.
The opening chapters feel like the languorous terror of sleep paralysis—trapped and looking, just there, at an eldritch presence that cannot quite be made out. With Laon’s return, the novel breaks out of a Gothic stupor, but the awakening is no comfort. The terrors of the dream break into waking life. Moreover, waking life contains its own terrors, which dance masquerade with the darkness. Cathy and her brother tumble, breathless, through the visitation of the Queen Mab and her inhuman court, but it is when they catch their breath that the real danger presses.
Under the Pendulum Sun contains wonders and terrors, sweet love and brittle disgust. Its Victorian theology is deeply considered and strangely relevant, and sent me paging through religious texts, trying to catch the echoes of the antediluvian. The reality and unreality of Acadia is always on the tip of Cathy’s tongue, at the corner of her eye. She and her brother might be able to strike off into the darkness, to collect the souls of their mission, but they must accept the darkness in themselves before they do. Conversion goes both ways in Acadia.