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Pew by Catherine Lacey

“The reason churches have so many doors is that people tend to leave churches in groups, in a hurry. It seems people have a lot of reasons for entering a church and perhaps even more reasons for leaving one, but the only reason I’ve gone to a church was to sleep. If you do manage to have a night’s sleep in a church, you’ll notice how nice it is to wake up there. It will almost make you want to believe in God if you don’t believe in God, and if you do believe in God, it will be a nice pat on the back for you. It must be nice to be patted on the back in this way, to walk always followed by this constant, gentle pat.”

Gently awoken from a deep sleep in the middle of Sunday service is a young person of indeterminable gender, age or origin. One family takes the stranger in, gives them a place to sleep and a warm meal and the congregation names them Pew, after the place they were found in. Pew does not speak. Cannot speak or does not want to speak, but the hosts are looking for answers. Can we let someone into our home and community, if we know nothing about their past? Can we trust them, if we cannot sort them neatly into the categories familiar to us? If they defy our classification of right and wrong, good and bad? But this small community in the American South prides itself in its Christian kindness, in always acting according to whatever the standards of fairness are at any given time. One by one, over the course of a week, Pew is introduced to various members of the town who try to get answers about the visitor but end up using Pew as a blank slate for projections. Rather than finding answers to their questions, the answer questions about themselves no one has asked. Secrets emerge, truths are revealed, as people imagine to find themselves in Pew’s silence.

Observing the town’s reactions to Pew’s ambiguity quickly becomes much more interesting than the question of their identity. On the surface, the townspeople appear well-meaning and generous, but little threats find their way into conversations and as the town prepares for the mysterious annual Forgiveness Festival tensions around Pew grow. Not knowing makes the community uneasy and soon generosity is pushed aside by suspicion. An eerie sense of apprehension spreads through the town as the Festival is prepared, wild rumours circulate and the question of Pew’s role in the ceremony grows increasingly pressing as the novel races towards its conclusion.

Catherine Lacey’s third novel is slim but heavy, a thought-provoking read that will play on your mind for a good while after finishing it. A foreboding, somewhat threatening atmosphere keeps the suspense as we uncover the rift between the friendly, Christian veneer and the rigid, controlling nature of the town’s inhabitants. This complex and literary novel addresses one of the most pressing themes ruling cultural and political discourses today: identity, how we define ourselves, and how quick we are in categorising others. Hypocrisy and contradictions of our Western societies are at centre of Pew, a novel that really shows flaws in our common conceptions of morality and the danger of judging people by appearance. Lacey trains you not to ask the questions you want answered just as much as the townspeople do, she shows you how intrusive the questions are and how useless the answers would be as none of our identities are stable or straightforward. She makes you wonder though, why decoding someone’s identity based on an arbitrary set of characteristics seems to be a puzzle your brain immediately seeks to solve. Above all else, Pew is beautifully written. Lacey’s language is soft and melodic, yet powerful and convincing. Easy to read but, as I said, hard to get off your mind.

“It seems that time is somewhere else and what I can see here is not the present, but is, instead, the future, and somehow the present moment I back there somewhere I cannot reach and I’m stuck living here, in some future time. This body hangs beneath me, carries me around, but it does not seem to belong to me, and even if I could see them, I would not recognise my own eyes.”

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