Pew by Catherine Lacey
Published by Granta, 2020
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
A person of indeterminate age, gender and race, with apparent amnesia and an unwillingness to speak, is found sleeping on a church pew in an unnamed American town. A local family offers to take them in, giving them the nickname Pew. Although claiming to be charitable, the town grows increasingly impatient with Pew the more they refuse to answer questions or conform to strict societal roles.
The book is largely a meditation on the idea of the body versus the person, and the individual versus the community. The townsfolk show little interest in getting to know Pew’s personality or desires, determined instead to categorize them based on physical characteristics and identifiable labels alone. They are at pains to imply they’re open minded regarding Pew’s ambiguous gender, sexuality, and origins, but there are clear implications that people’s charitable efforts may no longer be on offer should the answers to their questions not be what they want to hear; that this community remains more divided than they want others to believe. It is this hypocrisy that Lacey really wants to interrogate, and with Pew being both an outsider and – in many ways – a blank canvas, people repeatedly feel compelled to purge themselves of secrets in front of them, revealing the town’s dark heart. Though I could see what the author was going for thematically with these scenes, it has to be said they felt incredibly unbelievable from a dialogue and narrative perspective.
On the other hand, several scenes in which the group discuss what to do about Pew – as though they aren’t present – felt uncomfortably real. I thought Lacey did a great job here of reflecting the way society so often dehumanises those who – for whatever reason – don’t have a voice; forcing us to ask ourselves whether Pew is in fact a guest or a prisoner.
Set across a week leading up to the town’s mysterious ‘Forgiveness Festival’, the book does an excellent job of subtly building tension; the nature of this annual event seeming ever more sinister as it grows near. Sadly, I felt all of this foundational work was undone by a rushed, info-dump explanation as to the festival’s purpose, and a final few pages of pretentious, literary waffle – neither of which satisfied on a narrative or thematic level. The trouble is, the story hinted at in Pew’s final chapter is far more interesting than the one we actually got, and rather than leaving me wanting more in a good way, it left me questioning why we were given so little when Lacey clearly had more to bring to the table.
Despite ultimately feeling frustrated by the novel’s untapped potential, this was still a provocative and worthwhile read in its own way. It poses fascinating questions about identity, community, organised religion, the precarious line between tolerance and impatience, and what can happen when charity starts to feel like a burden.