The following review will be packed full of spoilers. If you haven’t read the book already, don’t read this review.
Folk of the air…
Et voilà, UNDER THE PENDULUM SUN!
Seriously though, this book is such a treat. I’ve loved fantasy books about fair folks. I’ve loved gothic fiction with all my heart. I’ve loved and read the two comparatively well-known Brontë sisters. And I’ve always always adored books whose bases have been built solidly upon the Abrahamic tales and events. Being from one of the main Abrahamic religions myself, it makes me sit up straight and gobble up whatever fictions are based on anything remotely related to the Abrahamic religions.
So of course, I stayed up all night devouring this book, hiding my phone’s glow from my parents who occasionally sauntered into the room for various reasons. My eyes are (almost) bloodshot and deprived of sleep but I’m high on this book and I must leave a review as soon as possible.
So what is this book about?
25 years old Catherine Helstone (the surname is a pun) goes to the elusive, mythical faeland called Elphane or Arcadia, to investigate what has become of her older brother (her only living family), the missionary Reverend Laon Helstone, who’s been unresponsive to her letters for quite a long time. Uncommonly close since childhood and grown up in the atmospheric world of the Yorkshire moors, Catherine must unearth whatever happened to her beloved older brother. And when they two are finally reunited, the joy is short-lived, for Queen Mab, the majestic queen of the fair folks, is hot on his heels. The two siblings cling to one another for life, as their lives and sanity are mercilessly tossed and toyed with to the whim of the fair folks.
This book is chock-full of Abrahamic allusions, mostly Biblical ones, as well as literary allusions. Catherine is named after both Catherine Earnshaw, the rebellious protagonist of WUTHERING HEIGHTS, in love with her adopted brother, Heathcliff; as well as Catherine Morland, the naïve protagonist in Jane Austen’s NORTHANGER ABBEY, who explores the titled abbey in search of insidious mysteries she is often warned against, much like our own Cathy here. Meanwhile, Laon is named after the character Laon from Shelley’s poem, THE REVOLT OF ISLAM, where a pair of siblings go against the norms and pays for it dearly. If you’ve read JANE EYRE, you’ll instantly recognize the first meeting scene between Laon and Catherine in the book, as well as the eerie resemblance between their childhood spent in the moors and that of the two sibling lovers in WUTHERING HEIGHTS. At any rate, this book is such a beautiful homage to the Brontë sisters and their gothic tales. You’ll even find a madwoman in the attic (or rather the cellar) chased to the rooftop, a fire that envelops the sibling lovers, and a wizened nurse who looks after the aforementioned madwoman, an unfortunate wife driven to madness by her husband’s selfish cruelty towards her.
Anyway, what pulled me toward this book was the pitch: Victorian missionaries in faerie land preaching God’s words to beings whose existence is dubious according to the Bible. Like in all her other colonial conquests, England sends missionaries to conquer the faeland as well. Never before has anyone mashed the ethereal fairies with the Abrahamic religions and its contents. In most books of faeries, nobody ever tried to explore what would happen if these fantastical beings’ existence was tried to be explained and justified according to Christianity. Jeannette Ng does this. Her excellent way of weaving such a tale has created a unique masterpiece never been done before and I love it to bits!
I’d also like to discuss the similarities we find between Catherine and Laon’s story and the Abrahamic creation myth. While in Islam and Christianity, there is only Adam and Eve and nobody else before or after them, Judaism reminds us of the forgotten existence of Lilith, Adam’s first wife who was created, not from one of his ribs, but from the same clay from which he too was made. But because of her disobedience to submit to Adam, she was cast out like Satan was and Eve was created from Adam’s ribs, the blood of his blood and the flesh of his flesh. Like Adam and Lilith, who are considered siblings in this book, Laon and Catherine are siblings too. But unlike Adam and Lilith, they share the same blood and flesh, almost as if they’re also Adam and Eve. Like Lilith, Catherine refuses to obey her older brother’s orders, be it to return to England in two weeks or not try to decipher the mysteries of the Arcadian castle they’re living in. Like Eve, Catherine pursues knowledge forbidden for mankind, a language of the angels, lost and now found but indecipherable and cryptic. Like Eve, Catherine is pulled toward the forbidden fruits of knowledge. Like Adam following Eve’s suit, Laon is also pulled into this pursuit of forbidden knowledge. But the real forbidden fruit for them is the lust and passionate love they feel for each other. Their sexual and romantic attractions are so intensely passionate that they both seek respite from it, to the point Laon even takes up missionary work to escape the forbidden pull he feels toward the little sister he cannot have this way. And once they do get a taste of this forbidden fruit, they cannot untaste it. They cannot stop themselves and this is their real undoing. And then, in the end, they become Adam and Eve, cast aside from the Eden (which here is the human world) to a foreign, dangerous land where they must stick together to survive and spread God’s words. Their love is forbidden and sinful, yet they cannot survive without each other, no matter what. Their creation myth is so much like Adam and Eve, and yet it is not. The “Eden” they’ve been cast out of is not really an Eden, what with colonialism destroying the world and industrialism and capitalism following suit in that mission of destruction. The “earth” they’re cast into is not the lush earth Adam and Eve were cast into, rather truly the hell that’s never been blessed with Christ’s descent into it; even God does not exert any of His control over it. Like Adam and Eve, Laon and Catherine’s job is to venture into this barren, treacherous territory and spread God’s words and wisdom in it. Like Adam and Eve, they are the only humans in this hellscape. When I say that Jeannette Ng has outdone it, I mean she has REALLY outdone it.
One more thing I’d like to discuss. A lot of readers are repulsed by the inclusion of incest in the book. While their reaction is justified, I’d say the incest was not romanticized at all. It was a necessary, albeit not universally accepted, component of this particular tale. Incest is one of the most unforgivable sins out there and by having a reverend and his devout sister commit such a heinous sin, we are shown even the best among us can be capable of such sins, just as Adam was the best among God’s creation and he and Eve fell from Heaven. Adam and Eve and Lilith and the creation myth, all of it are themes so deeply entrenched at the base of this story, you cannot do justice to this story without the incest inclusion. The incest here is revolting, a sin you cannot forgive and forget, even the Helstone siblings cannot. But by pushing the limits in this area, Jeannette Ng has achieved a masterpiece into existence unlike any other.
Overall, this book is going straight to my all-time favorite shelf on GoodReads. I’d heartily recommend this book to anyone who loves to read books about wicked faeries, gothic fantasy, and Abrahamic diegesis. This is not a book for all, but this is a book that’ll conquer your heart if it is.