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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”