Book review: Pew, by Catherine Lacey

There are some novels which are like intricately constructed traps for book reviewers. Catherine Lacey’s Pew is one of them, and it is also an alarmingly discomfiting, sublimely written novel. It unfolds over the course of a week, beginning with a young person tired from walking, so tired “you keep looking down at your hands and not recognising them”, seeking sanctuary overnight in a church. In the morning, Pew is awoken by the service. A couple, Hilda and Steven Bonner, agree to care for this unexpected ward in their family home. It is an act of charity which does not go down particularly well with their children. Pew, having been found on a pew, is henceforth called Pew. Perhaps the most obvious reason for this is that Pew refuses to speak.

Catherine Lacey PIC: Willy Somma
Catherine Lacey PIC: Willy Somma

Across the week, a series of individuals attempt to unravel the enigma that is Pew. It begins with the well-meaning Bonners; then we move through the local reverend, an elderly relative, a do-gooder who does art therapy with victims of trauma, Kitty Goodson, the local queen bee and her family (including Nelson, whom they have adopted, and doesn’t fit their rather prim and preening lifestyle), a “youth minister”, a terminally ill man, a medical professional, a hardscrabble couple rather distant from the canapés of the Goodsons but apparently friends with the Bonners, a quiet widower who wants to take Pew for a walk in the woods, a bumptious local bigwig, and eventually an African-American preacher and his flock.

Pew is a hard nut to crack. But a picture of the community begins to build up. Pew is the blank page on which they are writing their stories, some confessional, some aspirational, all contradictory.

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So: trap one. Who is Pew? Reading any novel, but particularly a first person narrative, one of my first tactics is to note distinguishing features of the narrator. Let us say that one of the old ladies at the meeting to decide about Pew puts it best. “Now I was talking to Minnie Sims about Pew and I must tell y’all, we have some real disagreements about what… Pew looks like. I mean, to me it’s so obviously a girl and definitely not white, I’d say about thirteen or fourteen years old, but Minnie, she is convinced that Pew’s a boy and white and at least fifteen!” “More white than not white is what I said,” Minnie clarified. If you re-read the opening of this review I hope you realise how I had to avoid any gendered pronouns. How do you interpret a novel with an indecipherable centre? It’s not as if the reader isn’t granted access to Pew’s often cryptic, sometimes metaphysical musings. So: trap two. What is the nature of the mystery?

Here again, Lacey throws the most elegant curveball. She pulls out every stop on the organ of gothic themes. I used to tell book groups and aspiring reviewers that establishing genre is paramount: there is little point in complaining that there were a lot of murders in an Agatha Christie or a lot of made-up creatures in Tolkien. Here, we are clearly in Shirley Jackson or David Lynch territory (it also reminded me of Sharp Objects which I have been drip-feeding myself rather than binge-watching).

Let me present the evidence. There is a small town. A stranger arrives. The elderly relative who minds Pew has a glass eye and stories about the past. The slightly drop-out couple tried to keep peacocks. Pew finds a torn newspaper notice that read “SON – You are not being / hunted for anything but to / find you. Come Home. – MOTHER”. Children are disappearing in neighbouring Almoseville. There is a parrot that can imitate speech, and sometimes whistles, “The kingdom of God is within you. Within you. Within you. F*** you. F*** you. The kingdom of God.” To cap it all, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, Pew arrives just as the town is getting ready for its unique “Forgiveness Festival”.

So: trap three. It would be utterly wrong, in a moral or aesthetic sense, to reveal the denouement. Suffice to say that while running all the probabilities and assessing all the feasible options, I realised I had still been led up the garden path. Pew is a masterpiece of misdirection. If that were just a clever parlour trick, it would be entertaining enough; but there is an importance here about how we judge. In some ways the moral is staring the reader in the face the whole time, but we are too caught up in the goose-flesh to notice.

“Somehow our bodies wouldn’t determine our lives,” muses Pew, while thinking about a world where “ideas could hold other ideas, where thoughts could see other thoughts.”

This is a novel about preconception, moral blindness and the long fingers of guilt. I think it is the most enlightening trap I have ever encountered, but the last words should be Pew’s. “A word is put down as a placeholder for something that cannot be communicated, no matter what anyone tries, no matter how many words accumulate, there is always that absence. I stayed silent.”

Pew, by Catherine Lacey, Granta, £12.99