Infernal visions

Ruins of gatehouse and keep of inner ward, Ludlow Castle, Shropshire

Jeannette Ng: Under the Pendulum Sun
Angry Robot Books 2017

“Two-thirds of the way through Shirley Caroline Helstone’s eyes change from brown to blue. This is not an unparalleled phenomenon in a novel. In Shirley however it is unexpected, for here Charlotte Brontë is much occupied with the looks of her characters.”
— from the abstract to J M S Tompkins, ‘Caroline Helstone’s Eyes’ Brontë Society Transactions Volume 14, 1961, Issue 1

I very much wanted to like this novel. Described as a ‘gothic fantasy with a theological twist’ Under a Pendulum Sun paraded a magnificent range of tropes and themes for our enjoyment, all centred around that staple Gothick cliché, the mysterious castle. In the 1840s Catherine Helstone travels from her native Yorkshire into the North Sea, en route to the realm that her missionary brother, Laon, has chosen to proselytise. This realm is called Arcadia, also known as the land of the Fae, what we now call fairies. But forget the little people with gauze-like wings from nursery tales, these are more altogether more mysterious, even sinister: and do they even have souls to save?

Jeanette Ng has, uniquely it seems, wedded together two unconnected themes, fairyland and theology, to produce a hybrid that’s pregnant with possibilities. She’s added into the mix the age-old British imperialist dream which in the 19th century sailed under the flags of free trade and converting heathens; she’s then buttressed her narrative with faux extracts from 19th-century texts each prefacing a chapter. So far so intriguing. But then the more we hear of Catherine, the narrator of the story, her secretive brother, a companion Ariel Davenport, castle servants Benjamin Goodfellow and the housekeeper known as the Salamander, plus a rarely glimpsed woman in black, the more mysteries the plot reveals. That’s all before we come to Mab, the Queen of the Fae, and her subjects.

I had high hopes for this unconventional fairytale set in a land with its own out-of-kilter cosmology (the sun really does swing from a Pendulum, and the moon, well, let’s just say it’s unexpected). That I wasn’t entirely won over is not because of the multiplicity of themes — which in fact was what most entertained me and kept me going — but because of other crucially important aspects of successful novel writing. Before I come to those negatives I want to apologise for the longer-than-usual digressions which now follow.

The author has structured her novel by dividing it into four parts, the first three each containing thirteen chapters, the last a mere four. Headed Gethsemane, Gilead, Golgotha and Gehenna, they seem — as anyone even vaguely familiar with biblical names will realise — to allude to increasing tribulation. Gethsemane is the name of the castle that the Reverend Helstone is based in, but to Catherine it is virtually a prison from which she rarely ventures. Little seems to happen, with Catherine constantly musing about the mysteries she always to be on the verge of solving, though for the reader the expectation is that there must be a final tying of plot strands.

It may be significant that the author runs live roleplay games, because that’s the sense I was getting from the plot twists which mostly never quite resolved. The narrative arc of pretty much all fantasy RPG is very different from fiction. Yes, there is often a beginning where the player sets out as if on a quest or adventure, but the principle of ‘interactivity’ means outcome is not easily controlled. Interactivity apes real life scenarios in which outside agencies (such as other individuals and random events) affect the structuring of a narrative which we might otherwise expect a single author to control; and while generally working within constrained limits (‘the rules’) interactivity ensures each ‘main protagonist’ (as they see themselves) is not what they may actually be.

Catherine is not what she thinks she is. First, she is clearly an amalgamation of other fictional characters, for example Catherine Morland from Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Caroline Helstone from Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. Caroline Helstone’s change of eye colour from brown to blue (as the above quote informs us) echoes the theme of the changeling in Under a Pendulum Sun: a changeling traditionally is a seemingly flawed being secretly substituted by the fairies for a human child. Catherine and Laon are further modelled on the real-life Charlotte and her ill-fated brother Branwell Brontë, right down to the model soldiers and the imaginary countries they invented. (A former friend of Catherine’s is Louisa March, another literary amalgam I guess, of Louisa May Alcott and her most famous creations, the March girls.)

The substituted changeling theme is paralleled by other motifs also emphasising ambiguity. There’s the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the exact nature of the bread and wine that are said to become the body and blood of Christ. There’s also constant reference to mirrors which reflect only a semblance of whoever stands in front of them, and also to automata which parrot the actions and appearances of human beings. Finally there are the other biblical allusions, to The Song of Solomon and the Jewish legend of Lilith, the alternative Eve, which hint at what final revelations we may be led to expect.

So, a potent mix of Old and New Testament theology and the Gothick genre; there are those nods to Charlotte Brontë and her siblings and other Romantic figures, and explicit references to John Dee’s Enochian language; elsewhere the author acknowledges the influence of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell; perhaps there’s even an unconscious homage to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Sphinx with its reference to the Death’s Head hawkmoth; above all there’s a firm grounding in the English fairy tradition, seen through the prism of Hieronymus Bosch’s infernal visions.

All in all, this I should have found this right up my street; but I have to admit I found this a frustrating read. I can usually tell when I’m losing interest in a book if I’m checking how much further I have to go, and that was frequently the case here. It wasn’t so much the slowness of the plot — I can cope with that if the nature of the novel demands it — it was more the confusing language, perhaps a product of lazy editing. Let me give you some examples.

In Chapter 32 we have the sentence, “Candlelight suffused the room, dancing overlapping shadows over the pages.” Candlelight suffusing a room is alright, suggesting a slow, gradual spread of light like tea brewing in a cup, but the word “dancing” suggests something more vigorous and active, while the transitive use of the verb (the light leading the shadow in a dance, as it were) to me contradicts the suffusing. This conflict of metaphors could so easily have been resolved.

Chapter 37 opens with a passage including the following phrase: “What despicable cruelties the eyes in the well would plot upon us…” More disconnects here, I feel, as eyes don’t plot, and it’s not clear in which sense ‘plot’ is being used: is it making secret plans (as “despicable cruelties” implies) or a narrative (as “upon us” might suggest)? Chapter 39 has almost half a page of conversation after a character is given a brooch before this sentence: “Her voice trailed off and she pressed the sharp of it onto her thumb and a dot of red blood bloomed.” I had a double take at this — is the character’s voice really that sharp? — until I looked back to remind myself the brooch was meant.

In Chapter 42 another personage asks, “How else can I stealth into your dreams?” Now, ‘stealth’ is a noun and, while it’s common to repurpose nouns as verbs, there’s a perfectly good verb that means the same, and it’s even shorter: it’s steal. Is all this obtuse phraseology meant to disorientate us in what is after all a Gothic nightmare? If so, it succeeds, though I personally find it much too offputting a verbal tic.

Under a Pendulum Sun has a final revelation that reminds me of a theme in Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner (from 1951, itself a modern rendition of the medieval epic Gregorius) and in Max Frisch’s Andorra (a play I remember being involved in many years ago at university): the reveal alludes to a relationship which many readers of The Song of Solomon find uncomfortable. It’s another example of the ambiguity that drives Jeannette Ng’s novel, and it’s an ambiguity that may also underlie whether the novel succeeds or not.

Hieronymus Bosch: The Last Judgement. Hell (detail)

In the Ultimate Reading Challenge this counts as a book with an appealing cover, its Gothick weirdness and subtle asymmetry perfectly matching the contents

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27 thoughts on “Infernal visions

  1. Your critique seems very restrained yet, coming from you, Chris, a gentlest soul among bookworms, constitutes a very clear warning 🙂 I’ll definitely stay away from this novel!

    1. Oh, I’d hope you’d want to make up your own mind about it, Ola! I see my critiques as a sort of Rough Guide to each work, pointing out pluses as well as minuses, but remembering that travellers ought to experience the visit for themselves. I’d hoped I’d said enough positive things to imply this was worth the effort, and you might not find the phraseology as off-putting as I did! 🙂

      1. Well, let me put it this way: the vast majority of your reviews ranges from cautiously positive to outright enthusiastic 🙂 When I see one where the pendulum of your opinion swings toward critical… It is a clear warning to me, especially because I usually find the ‘purple prose’ (to borrow a phrase from theorangutanlibrarian) quite irritating 🙂

    1. Going with your pudding metaphor, Gert, I didn’t mind the richness at all (in fact I rather relished it) but I thought the ingredients not mixed together as well as they should have been and the whole a bit doughy, not quite baked to perfection.

  2. Your critique leaves room for others to maybe like it, but the faults you present and the structure make me not want to try it. (For Gothic I still have some Shirley Jackson and other Bronte books to read, hehehe).

    1. Depends on one’s sensibilities I suppose, Silvia, I’ve since looked at several reviews online and a great many readers like the atmosphere, the concept and/or the main protagonist, but not many talk about the awkwardly phrased purple prose you noted, though some think (as I do) that the characterisation of some of the supporting cast is weak.

      I like to give new writers a fair chance, but I think Ng was not served by her publishers as well as she could have been. Having said which, the production is excellent and the cover art very striking.

      1. You are the 2nd person to mention this week the decay in the editors job. My friend Lisa, reading a new book on the life of Lady Channel, noticed mistakes in the titles, even names and references. I’m not snob, but I need the books to have better English than mine. Those sentences you show and their incongruences, won’t cut it for me. I like that you are generous and point out the strengths. To me, new authors get a lesser chance, though I try some, sure! I prefer the tried new ones, lol, for example, I am now captivated by an “old” new author, Erik Larson.

        1. Every published writer started as a debut author at some time — usually at the beginning of their career, of course! I do try and read new authors as well as established ones, but in no organised way.

          I used to apply for review copies through some well-known social sites but many of these seemed to be self-published and therefore painful to read, let alone review, so I don’t bother now. I’m not sure an editor would have helped in some of those cases!

  3. I have edited for some authors who would come back to me, if I criticised something like that candle passage, by saying scornfully that it was a challenge to the reader’s imagination to accept that candles that suffuse still flicker, and then resisting all suggestions that it be changed.
    It does seem, here, though, that the writer would have a good deal of promise if prepared to accept a ruthless editorial prune.

    1. I really liked Ng’s imaginative leaps and the plot’s direction, but those obtuse phrases and opaque passsges really got in the way of the narrative for me.

      I don’t want to pose as a member of the grammar police, but if any reader is distracted or tripped up by mixed metaphors or misapplied terms then the storytelling suffers and the character loses substance. I agree, Col, a good editor would strip away or modify an author’s excess verbiage. If only she’d come to you! 🙂

  4. piotrek

    It’s been some time since I’ve read anything from Angry Robot. I have mixed memories, there were some gems and a few disappointments. Quick view at their www tells me covers are not as pretty as they used to be, but there are exceptions, including this book.

    So much of what you say sounds very interesting… Fae and Christian theology? I don’t mind when mythologies get mixed 😉 And I’m more resilient against purple prose than Ola… Chris, I’m actually tempted to go for it! Maybe one day, when I’ll feel like taking a risk 😉

    1. There’s purple prose and there’s ultra violet prose — this falls around the mauve end of the spectrum, I think! I seem to have not sold this very well, I’m afraid; by being critical about one aspect of it, its occasional literary fuzziness, I seem to have damned it forever, for which I’m sorry. All I can add is that I was mildly disappointed with parts of it, for all its visionary qualities.

      Do take the risk, I’d be interested in what you think of it; I’d even send you my copy if I hadn’t already had a recipient in mind!

  5. elainethomp

    I remember Dorothy Heydt reminiscing about Poul Anderson asking her how a priest would react to a mer-person who wanted baptism. (She was the Catholic he knew best.) That was for his Ys & Merman’s Children book set. I don’t like Anderson much – somehow I never connect with his characters – but you might be interested in his different take on Fae and Christianity.

    He also wrote a novel where the works of Shakespeare are historical fact and wrote it in iambic pentameter fortunately printed as normal prose. I wouldn’t call his prose ever purple, either.

    1. Well, you’ve intrigued me, Elaine. I think I started an Anderson novel a few years ago — I’ve a feeling it could have been a young adult novel — but it was so much hard work that not only did I not continue but I also have no memory of the title! The titles you mention ring no bells, sadly. The Shakespeare-inspired novel sounds an interesting idea, I like the idea of blank verse written out as prose: didn’t some of the ‘bad’ editions of his plays, the ones assumed to be prompter’s copies, sometimes appear on the page as prose?

      1. elainethomp

        Shakespeare’s plays written out as prose – that I don’t happen to know. But intriguing thought. Or maybe they lacked poet’s ears and thought the blank verse was prose.

        The Anderson where Shakespeare is The Great Historian is A Midsummer Tempest. Available on kindle in the USA (where I am). And undoubtedly used in assorted conditions. I doubt it’s in print on paper. It’s set during the English Civil War.

  6. It looks like this one would twist my brain into a knot! On another tack, have you heard about that Japanese Philosophy best seller which is now coming out in English? It’s called “The Courage to be Disliked”. I’m not really into philosophy but I read a review that’s got me all excited about this book. It demonstrates the Socratic method and is supposed to be really quite deep despite sounding like a shallow self-help book.

    1. I haven’t, Jo, but it sounds intriguing! I’ll research it now. 🙂

      I’ve made Ng’s book sound quite complex, even off-putting, but if you’re into Gothic it’s best to make up your own mind, or even read the more positive e reviews as an antidote.

        1. Fair enough, I’m glad I read it but I wouldn’t read it again; ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ would be more to my liking for a reread. Anyway, life’s too short to spend time on things that don’t appeal!

  7. Damn. From your description of the elements, I was really, really hoping this story would work well. But if the writing’s shoddy, how can anyone appreciate the story? Excellent critique. Heaven help me if you ever read one of my stories!

    1. I did indeed trip up over Ng’s prose at times, Jean, but I raise my hat to her for her novel approach to the whole cliché of the human visiting Fairyland. Lots of clever touches made me appreciate her imaginative breadth. She does have legions of fans who presumably overlook her lexical infelicities (maybe they didn’t spot them) and I wouldn’t want to damn her out of hand because I’m squeamish about mixed metaphors and the like! Worth a borrow from your library, possibly?

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