It needs authorial guts to write a novel in which details are shrouded, meaning is concealed and little is certain. Step up Catherine Lacey, and welcome. Her previous novels specialised in confounding the reader, taking the frames of road trip and science fiction and giving them
a good yank. Now she’s gone full religious allegory on us: or has she?
‘Pew’ is the name the villagers in her novel give to a stranger they find sleeping on a pew in the local church. Lacey’s character offers no name, no story, no age or gender (so let’s use the pronoun they; though I admit I kept thinking of Pew as male, but that may just reflect my preconceptions about taciturn weirdos). The villagers themselves are in an unnamed US state, and are close-knit and religious in the style favoured by liberal novelists.
But they are not judgmental, at least to begin with. Pew is taken in by a family who makes room for them in the attic. But during the seven days over which the novel takes place, they begin to tire of Pew’s refusal to communicate or undergo medical examination, and as they convene a village meeting to discuss options, there’s a whiff of Shirley Jackson in the air.
So far this sounds like a standard stranger-in-our-midst drama, but the method of execution is unusual. Specifically, the story is narrated by Pew, which is a risky strategy. Would Bartleby the Scrivener have been quite so fascinating if he’d told us why he preferred not to? Not that we learn much from Pew, who’s ‘having trouble lately with remembering’. The voice is unstable, half Martian style (‘A thought slowly came to me that this is the sort of person called a mother. A mother wears dresses, holds hands’), half literary novelist who talks of things such as ‘bruised kindness’, whatever that is.
The blankness of Pew’s character has two effects: it makes the villagers project their own neuroses onto Pew; and for the reader it means the villagers become the focus of the story. There is hushed talk of what happened in the neighbouring town, and the week ends with a mysterious Forgiveness Festival. Pew listens to people’s histories but speaks only to those villagers who are themselves outsiders or traumatised.
Pew, like Pew, is open to different interpretations, occasionally frustrating but ultimately intriguing. It keeps you thinking, and you can’t ask for much more than that.