Review: Pew by Catherine Lacey

“I nodded, but I was still thinking about Nelson’s dream, and wondering why it was that anyone believed the human body needed to be any particular way, or what was so important about the human body. Was it possible for a human’s mind and memory and ideas to live inside the body of a horse, and if it was, did that make being a human or a horse? What difference did it make, one life or another.”

Pew – published by Granta Publications, May 14th 2020

Fleeing a past they can no longer remember, Pew wakes on a church bench, surrounded by curious strangers.

Pew doesn’t have a name, they’ve forgotten it. Pew doesn’t know if they’re a girl or a boy, a child or an almost-adult. Is Pew an orphan, or something worse? And what terrible trouble are they running from?

Pew won’t speak, but the men and women of this small, god-fearing town are full of questions. As the days pass, their insistent clamour will build from a murmur to a roar, as both the innocent and the guilty come undone in the face of Pew’s silence.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Allusion-rich prose and vague story that I adored until I didn’t.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

For the first half – I was in love. I adored the prose and thought the structure of the book worked wonderfully to invoke a sense of mounting dread. Catherine Lacey constructs a story that feels more like an extended fable than like a novel – in the best possible way. The story begins when a person is found sleeping in a church’s pew. The people in this small town take them in but as the person is not speaking (and nobody seems to be able to agree what they look like, how old they, what gender they are), it does not take very long for the others to turn on them. The book is infused with a growing sense of dread, as Pew (as they are called by the people who took them in) meets different people who all start telling them their darkest secrets, filling the silence the only way they know how. In the background are preparations for an ominous festival, the purpose of which remains cloaked in secrecy for Pew.

The first few chapters really worked for me, I thought the introductions of the different people and their backstories were intriguing, the prose was incredible, and Pew a sympathetic main character that I could not help but deeply root for. I also appreciated how the people were more archetypes than proper characters (unlike Pew who feels real if vague). I thought this worked really well for the fable-like mood. As this pattern kept repeating (Pew is sent to some person, that person assumes to have knowledge of Pew and then starts telling Pew their story), the sense of dread kept ratchetting up. However, as soon as Lacey started showing her hands and actually filling in the blanks a bit, the story lost its appeal to me.

Additionally, I thought the commentary on gender worked a lot better and was smoother integrated than the commentary on race where the fable-like prose felt ill-fitted. I think, ultimately, the prose was not quite strong enough for me to distract from the problems I had with the book. But when it worked for me, it worked so brilliantly that I am very glad to have read this.

Content warnings: Racism, description of lynchings, police corruption, religious fundamentalism, trans racial adoption

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quotations are taken from an unfinished copy and are subject to change.

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