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Pew Reviews

Pew by Catherine Lacey


Catherine Lacey

3.57 out of 5

12 reviews

Imprint: Granta Books
Publisher: Granta Books
Publication date: 14 May 2020
ISBN: 9781783785179
  • The GuardianBook of the Day
4 stars out of 5
22 May 2020

"It is weird, and Lacey has fun with the weirdness"

Pew has an epigraph from Ursula K Le Guin’s fable “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, which describes an idyllic society whose peace and stability depends on a small child (“It could be a boy or a girl”) being locked in a windowless room and denied every human comfort. Le Guin has credited the inspiration for the story to William James and Fyodor Dostoevsky, who both wrote about the Biblical story of the scapegoat. At one point in the novel, Pew experiences a flash of memory that comes directly from Le Guin’s story...
Pew is a confusing fable – there’s too much messy realism in it for its lesson to be easily understood – but it is within its messier reaches, and its concerns with inequality and prejudice, that its boldest and most brilliant effects are found.


3 stars out of 5
16 Jul 2020

"a study in community dynamics"

Pew is never allowed to be lost but instead becomes a vessel for spiritual meanderings and riddles. I began to feel as if I was babysitting a child who keeps asking questions like: ‘Why is the moon in the sky? Where do the stars go when they are asleep?’ Lacey seems to have forgotten the greatest weapon of a writer like O’Connor: humour. Every thought Pew has is deeply earnest. Humour would rupture the reverential atmosphere; it would be a hideous distraction from the momentous sense of purpose. Anyone who has ever had a fit of giggles during a sermon knows that religion is funny: it’s funny because it’s treated with such seriousness. Some playfulness wouldn’t have undermined Lacey’s intelligence. What I was really praying for by the end of Pew was one unexpected moment.

3 stars out of 5
Dwight Garner
13 Jul 2020

"This novel walks a high wire between pretentiousness and a kind of cool, disembodied unease."

What works in this novel is its Kafkaesque sense, through Pew, of free-floating anxiety and mortification of a sort that is impossible to define and thus impossible to soothe. Pew will not be characterized, interpreted, diagnosed or annotated. Pew seems to drift, like the planchette on a Ouija board... 

Lacey has a mastery of the lives and lingo of the Have a Nice Day crowd, the kind of people whose defensive optimism keeps them from learning about anyone. She stacks the deck so heavily against these hair-sprayed grotesques that they’re brittle, however; they crack like dry spaghetti.

This novel walks a high wire between pretentiousness and a kind of cool, disembodied unease. For me, it fell too often into the goo pit. “Sometimes I think I might be writing a letter to sleep” is a not-atypical comment by Pew. Hilda’s tightly held hair, Pew says, “made me feel the pressure and presence of every person who had never been born.”

4 stars out of 5
Johanna Thomas-Corr
10 Jun 2020

"Lacey’s novel has the feeling of a modern-day morality tale, only you’re never quite sure what the moral is"

Lacey’s characters are typically seized by an urge to flee, both from their circumstances and their bodies. These are desperate people: the missing, the confused, wandering without any plan and often at the mercy of strangers. But there’s rarely any sense of resolution in her fiction; answers are deferred or displaced. She specialises in precise prose about people who feel muddled. Pew is a novel full of jarring, surreal encounters and surprising turns. Dead people turn out to be alive. Stories don’t add up. People materialise and dematerialise in confusing ways.

3 stars out of 5
Beejay Silcox
9 Jun 2020

"Looking at the necessity of absence in Catherine Lacey's anti-fable Pew"

As the novel’s exultant final chapter approaches – a moment of rapture, monstrous and transcendent – it is clear that Lacey’s quarrel isn’t with anybody’s God, it is with peddlers of certainty and righteousness wherever they may be found; with too-easy answers and lazy binaries. And while there may be allegories lurking here, the author offers no tidy moral to her anti-fable. Such a thing would be impossible, even if she wished it: “A word is put down as a placeholder for something that cannot be communicated, no matter what anyone tries”, she writes, “no matter how many words accumulate, there is always that absence”. And so, in Pew, Catherine Lacey offers us the only thing she can – a world-rattling silence.

2 stars out of 5
Claire Lowdon
7 Jun 2020

"Pew is the kind of concoction you gulp down gamely — then, halfway through, wonder why you’re drinking it"

What keeps you reading is crudely withheld information: Pew’s identity, that creepy festival. Lacey buys herself space to waffle with the promise of a plot. But the “answers”, which come too late, are disappointing. In the final chapters you start to suspect that the base spirit for Pew’s queasy blend of genres is JM Coetzee’s Jesus trilogy, in which the characters — who can’t remember their pasts — are assigned names and bumble about an unspecified country reeking faintly of religious allegory.

4 stars out of 5
29 May 2020

"The ambiguous identity, race and sex of a homeless person adrift in the southern US colours a tale for our times"

I can’t over-emphasise how sweetly, swiftly and entertainingly this book proceeds, or how exquisitely the prose is crafted on every page. Reviewing mediocre fiction, I can struggle to find a quote or two. But my proof of Pew is fat with Post-it notes: “ . . . those hours before the sun has risen and the earth feels like a lung.” Or, “It’s a ritual. We make them, people make them, and they don’t really mean anything, even the ones that supposedly mean something — even they don’t mean anything. They’re just something to do.” Only a wordage limit prevents me from sharing many more wonderful passages.

4 stars out of 5
26 May 2020

"powerful... (a) rich, enigmatic novel"

By coincidence, I happened to read Pew alongside Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, which also casts doubt on the wisdom of setting too much store by crude notions of identity, albeit more bluntly. Wrestling more creatively with dilemmas of selfhood, Lacey avoids everyday considerations, which here interest only the narrow-minded townspeople out to have Pew pinned down (or worse) for the sake of what one of them calls “legitimate concerns”. “You might know that some people these days like to think a person gets to decide whether they are a boy or a girl,” someone tells Pew. “If I could have spoken,” Pew tells us, “I could have [answered] that I was human, only missing... a past, a memory of my past, an origin.” Live and let live, in other words – but, as this rich, enigmatic novel reminds us, it’s rarely that simple.

4 stars out of 5
Stephanie Cross
21 May 2020

"A cryptic, unsettling tale that rewards attentive unpicking even as it refuses easy answers."

For the devout townspeople, Pew is an unsettling presence, particularly as his (or her) arrival coincides with the annual ‘Forgiveness Festival’ — a mysterious ceremony about which we soon have grave misgivings — and the disappearance of a number of people in a neighbouring county.

Lacey, like Cusk, is interested in what we impose and project on to others, as well as the violence of conviction and righteousness.

A cryptic, unsettling tale that rewards attentive unpicking even as it refuses easy answers.

5 stars out of 5
Cal Revely-Calder
17 May 2020

"this sumptuously dark novel has spiritual weight"

Pew has the air of a fable, and isn’t beholden to geography. Nor do the deftly-imagined characters, from clergymen to children, become mere tools in a mystery plot. Lacey’s masterly novel has, instead, that Flannery O’Connor air of inescapable moral weight. All you learn, in the end, is the truth: that judging is a human vice, and our consciences can come alive in skewed and surprising ways. Pew becomes a tale of anxiety, and questioning, and the sad desire that good people have to try to make things right. It has, in that sense, a very Christian poise.

4 stars out of 5
9 May 2020

"It needs authorial guts to write a novel in which details are shrouded, meaning is concealed and little is certain"

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.

4 stars out of 5
Stuart Kelly
28 Apr 2020

"This is a novel about preconception, moral blindness and the long fingers of guilt"

So: trap three. It would be utterly wrong, in a moral or aesthetic sense, to reveal the denouement. Suffice to say that while running all the probabilities and assessing all the feasible options, I realised I had still been led up the garden path. Pew is a masterpiece of misdirection. If that were just a clever parlour trick, it would be entertaining enough; but there is an importance here about how we judge. In some ways the moral is staring the reader in the face the whole time, but we are too caught up in the goose-flesh to notice. “Somehow our bodies wouldn’t determine our lives,” muses Pew, while thinking about a world where “ideas could hold other ideas, where thoughts could see other thoughts.”