Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 1, 2018

The Beat of the Pendulum (2017), by Catherine Chidgey (First thoughts)

The Beat of the Pendulum is such an interesting, exciting book, I hardly know how to tell you about it.  The author, Catherine Chidgey (who wrote The Wish Child) calls it a ‘found novel’, best described by its blurb:

From the author of the acclaimed The Wish Child comes something unexpected and fearless: a found novel. The Beat of the Pendulum is the result of one year in which Chidgey drew upon the language she encountered on a daily basis, such as news stories, radio broadcasts, emails, social media, street signs, TV, and many conversations. As Chidgey filters and shapes the linguistic chaos of her recordings, a set of characters emerge – her family, including her young daughter, and her husband, mother and sister, her friends, and an extended family formed through surrogacy and donation. In her chronicling of moments of loveliness, strangeness, comedy and poetry and sorrow, Chidgey plays with the nature of time and its passing. The Beat of the Pendulum is also an exploration of human memory – how we acquire it, and how we lose it. This bravely experimental and immersive work draws us into the detail, reverberation and transience of a year in a life.

It begins in January, on the first day of the year:

I think your door is open.
People sometimes hear something but they don’t hear it correctly.  How’s wee darling? Did she see the New Year in?
No no no, gentle gentle gentle with the pearls.
Is he playing hard to get?  You won’t catch him. He’s stupid but not that stupid.  Shall we put you in the chair?
She looks at everything.  I don’t know how she looks so long without blinking.
She’ll knock that off there.  That’s not going to stay there.  Try the other hand.
Some babies at that age really can’t eat.  They can still just only have bottles.  You’re a show-off aren’t you?  Yes, you’re a big show-off.  She’s keeping her eye on you, isn’t she?  That shortbread was lovely.  Did you make it?  Oh.  Well, it just tasted like homemade.  When you can buy things as nice as that – I presume you bought it – it’s hardly worth turning your oven on.
So there were lots of admirers talking about the baby paraded at lunch the other day?
Oh yes – how old is she, what’s her name?  Yes, they thought she was beautiful.  They all like to see something like that, because you know… (p.7)

We are in the immediate presence of a family… a grandmother, maybe, wearing pearls, with a baby on her lap, a baby that is reaching, grabbing, exploring her world.  They might be in a car, with the door not shut quite right.  But who is he, that’s playing hard to get?

On the next page we learn more.  We are in a retirement village or an aged care home, hearing about Gwen and Les who sit at the same dining table as the lady who we predicted correctly was Nana. She tells us: there used to be another guy there, but I don’t know whether he’s died or gone upstairs or what’s happened to him but he’s not there and nobody seems to know. And we’ve now got a lady there who doesn’t even get a joke. 

(This makes me remember the dilemma at my father’s aged care home: should I tell him that his friend in the next room had died?  It must be so awful to be surrounded by so much death, as fast as he makes a friend, they’re gone.  Dead, or moved to a secure dementia ward.   And… did they tell my father’s dining-room friends about it when he died?  Or are they still wondering what’s happened to him?)

On page 3 we learn that the mother’s name is Catherine, and that her daughter’s toenails need cutting.

And so it goes on, a kaleidoscope of dialogue coming at us every which way.  Stuff that we filter out of our everyday experience is here … those Facebook ads on the edge of our consciousness.  10th January:

Do you have a novel inside of you?  Stop reading this. Start writing.  James Patterson Writing Masterclass.  Author of nineteen consecutive bestsellers reveals his tricks of the trade. I have started but I have no clue where to go from here.  I even have a second book in mind for my character.  I picture myself in front of a fireplace in a mountain cabin writing an insightful novel.  My whole life is an interesting novel.  I just lack the focus to write it all down.  (p.22)

Later on, 17th January, watching TV, with the baby in a play pen:

Did we see him leave or die or whatever?
No.  We must have missed something.  We didn’t see Leo going either.
I meant Leo.
Thurr’s bin a murr-durr. Again.
Was she a Mossad agent too?  The nanny?
She’s got the cord again!  Cords and shoes!
It’s coiling around her foot like a tourniquet.  We put you in there to be safe. Not for you to garrotte yourself.
The chick in the wheelchair doesn’t get to be much more than a token character.
She’s developed.
But we don’t see her back story or love life or house or anything.  (p.32)

26th January: Clickbait…

Meryl Streep is gone.  BREAKING NEWS.  We will miss you Meryl Streep.

And most hilarious of all, the GPS in the car, ordering the driver about and interrupting conversation and the news on the car radio – and the driver says exactly the same hostile things in response as I do!  What kind of weird world are we living in when we argue with a satellite navigator?!  How do we ever manage to think straight with this cacophony all around us?!!

The Ford Motor Company is pulling out of Japan.  Prepare to turn left after 290 metres, focussing its attention instead on China.  Take the next right.  Drive for 4.3 kilometres.  You’re over the speed limit.  Shut up.  You’re over the speed limit.  Prepare to turn left after 800 metres. What is the appeal of that kind of cricket at the Basin, do you think?  I think it’s just sitting on the grass and watching cricket.  Prepare to turn left after 300 metres, when you’ve got two great teams going at it on a sunny day.  Take the next left, then, take the next right. Take the next right, then, take the next left.  You feel like you’re part of something.  Take the next left.  Prepare to arrive at your destination after 240 metres.  No.  Arrive at your destination after 100 metres.  no.  You have reached your destination.  No I haven’t. (p.40)

This is not going to be a novel to everyone’s taste, but I like it.  I’ve only read up to the end of January but I have little sticky notes all over it, naming people as I come across them and work out their relationships.  The people are fascinating – some very strong opinions, especially about children and Donald Trump!

I’ll come back here and tell you more when I’ve finished it…

Author: Catherine Chidgey
Title: The Beat of the Pendulum
Publisher: Victoria University Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781776561704
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond $29.89

Available from Fishpond: The Beat of the Pendulum


  1. Hunh. What an interesting idea. I’m looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts as you move beyond January!


    • I’m up to May. I haven’t been able to put it down…


  2. I enjoyed your review, not sure about the novel itself, it might have been more interesting to write than to read. And writing lessons from James Patterson!? Guns & sex.


    • What’s she’s showing is all the white noise that surrounds us. It’s fascinating…


  3. […] promised, this is a follow-up review to my first thoughts about Catherine Chidgey’s The Beat of the Pendulum. which is longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.  This ‘found novel’ […]


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