Ah, don’t we love the books that come from left field, the books we never saw coming, the books that we didn’t anticipate and yet knock us for six all the same! Catherine Lacey’s Pew is one such book. I’d not read anything by Catherine Lacey before and, in fact, was just looking for a smallish novel that I thought I could read in enough time to crank out a review to fill a little blank in the old Bookmunch schedule – and there it was, Pew, published by Granta and clocking in at just over 200 pages. I had no expectations, I’d not heard anything about the book in advance, I just launched in and there it was. A blinder.
The first thing about the book, the first glimmer that it would like a fire under me, was the dedication to Jesse Ball. We like Jesse Ball here at Bookmunch. We liked Census and we liked The Divers’ Game. Jesse Ball is, for us, a genuinely interesting and original voice. Our ears pricked up. (And from the other side of the novel-reading experience, we want to say to you – if you’re a fan of Jesse Ball, we think you’ll dig Pew in a big way – Lacey has the same kind of interesting and original voice on display here). So the dedication is a kind of alert for sensitive readers.
This is the tale of a person who is found sleeping on a pew in a church in a close and somewhat unusual community. Silent and somewhat ambiguous, the community close about them and gradually start to nag at what they perceive as loose threads:
“I’m sorry if this is embarrassing to be asked, but we will need to know if you’re a boy or a girl.”
In many ways, this is the crux of Pew. What happens when a person either can’t remember or chooses not to say. Undoubtedly our narrator has issues with memory (in a way that conjured Ishiguro’s still remarkable novel The Unconsoled). And the issue with Pew’s identity comes with implied threat:
“…it’s simply not clear to us which one you are and you have to be one or the other, so unless you want us to figure it out the hard way, I think you should just tell us which one you are. Much easier.”
In addition to their identity, Pew also has a different skin colour to much of the rest of the community – and skin colour becomes an issue, as you’d probably expect given the gradually increasing prickliness of the community, as the novel proceeds, with characters wondering if Pew would be happier among her own kind. Eeeesh, you might think. Understandably.
There are other characters, though, who attempt sympathy, who attempt to breach the perceived divide, and some who manage it without even trying because quite possibly they have shared similar experiences – but the big take away is Lacey’s own writing. There are portions of the book that push you back in your seat, that have you blinking in wonder, that have you wanting to read lines aloud to whoever is near enough to hear. On this occasion that person is you:
“It’s always seemed to me – and as I get older, I feel this even more intensely – that kindness to other people comes with its own reward. It can be immediately felt. And the only thing I can see that a belief in divinity makes possible in this world is a right toward cruelty – the belief in an afterlife being the real life… not here. People need a sense of righteousness to take things from others… to carry out violence. Divinity gives them that. It creates the reins for cruelty.”
By the time I reached that ‘reins for cruelty’, I thought wow. Knockout. And that is something I feel about the whole book: wow, knockout.
Any Cop?: Pew is an honest to God smasher and we will be making up for our oversight by catching up with everything else that Lacey has done up to this point as a matter of no small urgency and we recommend you do the same.