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'Pew' by Catherine Lacey

by Arsh K.S 4 months ago in book reviews

A Book Review

published in January, 2020

An unnamed protagonist, if this word is still suitable for the character in question, is found on the Pew of a church, asleep. The service awakens her, I presume the gender, and she is shown kindness by a family who takes her in.

The only trace we have of her past is through memories recounted, of hunger and unrestful sleep, wandering and finding shelter at churches. Silence and a circumspect compliance is what characterises her behaviour. As a reviewer of books, I notice that this is in bleak contrast to the expressionism witnessed in characters that found themselves in difficult circumstances in the past, be it from Dickens, to the travellers of the Beat Generation. I guess what makes for this difference in outlook is the presence of a community, in whatever form, which plays in the life, emotions and voice of the outspoken ones. In this sense, Pew is a book about faith.

This is apparent in the name given to the ‘nameless, genderless, and racially ambiguous’ character, as the blurb says – Pew, after the place he was found in. A family takes him in. I do not record their names for it seems to be of no importance to him. He hardly observes them beyond their immediate actions and efforts to start a conversation as they go about their life while welcoming him to their table.

The silence of Pew unnerves the community however, and the son, on a warm moonlight night, attempts to confront the protagonist with the absurdity of the situation. How a stranger has been welcomed into the house, shown kindness, and was yet to divulge any information regarding herself, or where they are from. Bear in mind, that the family Pew was living with has been taking her out to meet other families, and even children in similar (speculated) circumstances, who may have been refugees, whose families were killed and who are escaping war-torn countries. She is even introduced to those who may be some kind of therapists who seek to inculcate her expression via other means, such as drawings for example; which she is told can even be abstract.

The real crises emerge when Pew is taken for examination and refuses to take her clothes of. For this, she is deemed an uncooperative patient. Though we do see how such a situation was arrived at. Even afterwards, neighbours and those close to her at home continue to open up about themselves to her. She listens, but shares very little. Almost nothing. A reply to a query addressed almost to oneself is the most we can discern halfway through the book.

These difficulties lead her to being taken again back to the house with children and refugees she was introduced to. Here, in meeting Nelson again, she develops a degree of familiarity as they share whiskey from his secret flask and play a game of cards, amidst the ice cream and hospitality of the home. The night and comfort leads Nelson, an emotionally hardened child who lost his family in a war in the Middle-East, to share a dream he has with her.

The adults who run the home believe that Pew and Nelson would get along, given their ‘similarities’. Nelson however does put his point of view across, even if it is difficult to hear, like when he rejects his foster mother and tells her that his mother died in a war. Butch, an older kid I presume, gives him the flask of whiskey after that episode.

Pew however, in spite of being the protagonist, is spoken to rather than expressive… We come across her interiority in passing thoughts in the form of remarks about the situation she finds herself in.

This does seem to frustrate the faith that a small community in an unnamed town in the American South put in her. A scene which captures this is when she comes back to Steven and Hilda’s house, the parrot, Chuck – screams at her, “the Kingdom of God is within you” “Fuck you”, repeatedly.

A meeting with Mr Kercher seems to mend this traumatic gulf in the narrative. He is a man grieved by losing the person his daughter was as she grew up. She is married now and has moved to another church. She no longer asks him the questions she used to when she was going to college studying philosophy, and he feels this loss. A withdrawn character, he tends a path in the woods and interacts affectionately with the moss. In the quiet of Pew, he feels able to open up about this grief, and admits that he is unable to come to terms with the position and influence of the Hindsmans, the family his daughter married into.

The community in the town gets involved as they have a meeting in what I presume would be their town hall. Grimshaw, the descendant of the family who set up the town tries to depict the situation to one and all and to decide upon a course of action, often prompted by the women there to stick to the script. It is decided that Pew would be medically examined properly and baptized on the coming Sunday.

A scene which seems to penetrate something in her, or at least get through is when Annie speaks to her about her own difficulties and arguments in school, regarding reproduction and sex, inheritance and how to make the world better. Her frustrations with the world, and its engagement were heard. Pew was left dreaming that she was a field that could breathe but returned to her body and throat.

In attempting to reconcile the centrifugal forces pulling people apart, Hilda and Steven introduce Pew to the forgiveness festival, a founding gesture on the part of their community. An acknowledgement, she explains, of the recognition that we are all ‘broken without god’.

On Friday Dr Corbin takes Pew to a Church to hear an organ play. While the music rings, Pew recalls all the years which had led her here, those that did not belong to her anymore, but were present, perhaps as a snapshot to just her alone. In a cinematic moment the sheets of music fall scattered when the player tries to turn a page and the organ comes to a stop. An emblem of the futility in holding together the community perhaps, and the dissonance with the loss of music animates the narrative.

Part of the charm of this novel is the way it can unfold almost without any deliberation from the protagonist, who is often reduced to a passive witness who is spoken to, almost confessed to by the small religious rural community in a town in the American south. They speak to her about their failings, in family – like when Mrs Columbus took Pew to the doctor, and was telling her about the struggles she had with her son growing up, who resisted eating meat and dairy because he felt a kinship with the animals at the zoo. A critical perspective cannot help but glean whether this eulogization of community, probed or not in the narrative, is a part of the successful reception that this text has received.

Pew however does feel a sense of solidarity with Jonny, Mrs Robinson’s lost child – particularly as she hears about his claims of hearing voices of the dead and they all speaking the same language. This reading seems reinforced by Jonny’s subsequent disillusionment with his community, his claim that it was not possible to favour a people or country, that even one’s own name was not our own. Mrs Robinson recalls that she remembers looking at him and not seeing anyone there. She blames Dr Corbin for setting him down that path, and this explains their present antagonism. The doctor however insists that the path was his own choosing.

We witness a scene where Pew is taken to a field by Dr Corbin. It is not specified but I presume this is the festival which was spoken of earlier. She meets a big burly bearded man named Leonard who seems to command some social authority and declares that he was not in favour of the way Pew had been handled, that she ought to have been taken to child services at once, not taken in by a family only to be cast out once there was some trouble. She also meets an old woman by a field who smiles through eyes that may have seen something. She welcomes her as ‘our new jesus’ and seems accepting and adaptive to Pew’s silence, even appearing to play along with the predicament, upholding religion, denouncing the clergy, before she is given pills and water. If this is the festival, I find it striking and endearing that this site was not in the least fetishized, but was allowed to remain just a gathering.

It is only later when she meets and sleeps in a room with Randall, a grownup who has a young heart that we learnt that that was not the festival. Randall is remarkably open with her about not wanting his mother to leave, and this fear from infancy is perhaps geared to create a sense of communion with the silent Pew.

On Saturday morning Dr Corbin tells Pew that he was part of the group which setup the festival of forgiveness initially, except that he is not sure whether it means what it once did. He’s unsure about whether forgiveness is just a garb for forgetting, or whether it has become such with time.

The ritual he speaks of is witnessed as a flock assembles in a high roofed building which was not a church. Everyone wearing white, carrying placards, asking for forgiveness. Moaning wails about adultery, untruthfulness, violence, theft are all cried into the air as the congregation, blindfolded listen to each other. Pew feels that among them are the voices of those she may have known, those she may come to know and some whom she faintly recognizes.

Names are read out and a young girl asks her parent whose names are these, and is told that it is those who had been killed. When asked why were they killed, she is told because elected representatives do so. She asks why anyone would want to be elected, to which she is told that someone has to be elected.

The garments, theme of forgiveness, and the mournful account of the departed bear faint and menacing recollections of a past not very far behind. Of Ku Klux Clan assemblies - and the questions regarding Pew’s ethnicity seem to indicate this.

This work yet attests to the cohesion and precarious bonds of a community in the face of a newcomer and stranger, who seems to be accepted and welcome into their fold. Why she chooses, never to answer the questions put forth, in spite of care and hospitality is left open and unanswered. Perhaps her life on the road taught her something that prescribed silence in such a community, or perhaps living as such no longer felt a need for conversation. This book, in this sense, is a commentary on the bonds of a congregation, familial and otherwise, and the place of an individual in it.

book reviews
Arsh K.S
Arsh K.S
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