Jeannette Ng’s debut novel tells the story of Catherine Helstone and her brother Laon, the latter being a missionary spreading God’s word abroad. Not, as you may think, to Africa, but to the magical realm of Arcadia, home of the mythical Fae. When Laon disappears, Catherine sets off in search of him, only to find herself isolated in this strange and sinister place. Considering herself trapped, she begins to question her decisions, her faith, and even her identity. When Laon does arrive – the fairy queen hot on his heels – the nature of the siblings’ relationship comes under scrutiny, and it becomes clear that all is not as it seems.
In one line, the book could be described as a gothic romance set in the land of fairies, but there’s more to it than that. Here, the author takes the tropes of the genre and manipulates them with great skill to serve her needs, making them ingredients of a recipe for suspense and some genuinely creepy moments. Not just a discourse on the nature of faith and the power of myth, Under The Pendulum Sun is a powerful story filled with secrets and hidden agendas; it twists and turns with sublime elegance, trapping the reader within the webs of intrigue, insisting that each page be scrutinised to find out more.
Packed with grand imagery and creatures that could have stepped out from a Bosch painting, it’s difficult to believe this is a first novel. Ng writes with great confidence, getting the reader into Catherine’s head from the first page to ensure we share her wariness of the characters she meets. Like her, we are strangers to this place, and this depth of empathy creates doubt and concerns for the reader too, an accompaniment to the fears and apprehensions of the protagonist as she faces the unknown. Catherine’s interactions with the denizens of this strange world are believable and compelling, while some revelations are a wrench to the heart. One character, Miss Davenport, works particularly well, an epitome of the seemingly-duplicitous nature of the realm.
Jeanette Ng is to be congratulated for creating something unique and fulfilling with this book, a story that doesn’t let go until the last line. While it initially proved a little difficult to get into – there are a couple of obscure references in there – it quickly takes hold after the first couple of chapters, and doesn’t let go. Despite containing recognisable tropes, both plot and character avoid cliché with great success; the author has clearly done her research, but never bogs us down in it, instead choosing to reveal the truth layer by layer, toying with our expectations. It’s a brave and startling debut, one that’s both sensual and sinister, a foundation for what should be a glowing career.