Resisting Binary Explanations in “Pew”

In Catherine Lacey’s new novel, Pew, a mysterious newcomer is found sleeping in the pews of a church on a Sunday morning. One family takes the stranger in, but when the stranger does not reveal their name, the pastor names them Pew, after the place where they were found. Throughout the week, the townspeople prepare for the upcoming Forgiveness Festival, while Pew observes silently. The resulting mystery is a must-read for anyone who loves an unreliable narrator.

Because of the first person narration, readers come to understand things that the townspeople cannot. We learn that the narrator isn’t just being intransigent when questioned, they actually don’t know their own origins, name, or race. We also hear the stories of many townspeople who talk to Pew freely.

Although honesty, confession, and forgiveness are central values that the people of the town at least pay lip service to, we discover that many of them are keeping secrets from one another, and the town’s long history is filled with darkness, including racial violence and deep, unresolved divisions. These divisions are highlighted by the fact that Pew is a person of unknown race, unknown gender, and unknown origin. It soon becomes clear that Pew actually appears differently to each individual viewer. The townspeople cannot agree on Pew’s gender or skin tone and insist on binary explanations, but Pew offers none. 

Not only does Pew offer no clear answers as a narrator, the novel as a whole provides little in the way of clarity, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions, just as Pew does. Because of the uncertainty and limited first person perspective, Pew creates an escalating sense of dread in broad daylight. With the Forgiveness Festival looming on the horizon and occasional mentions of missing people in nearby Almoseville, the tone of the novel is akin to work by Ursula K. Le Guin or Flannery O’Connor as well as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” but these comparisons don’t fully capture the joy of reading Lacey’s novel.

Despite its mystery, Pew is driven by concrete details. The narrative is organized by days of the week upon which flashbacks rarely intrude. Since Pew remembers very little of their own history, their narration focuses on what is happening in each moment, and even though the town’s exact location is not specified, various descriptions and turns of phrase firmly establish the Southern setting. One person tells Pew about a time when people were “bringing pies and such, and just so many flowers” during an illness; later another explains that a certain member of the town “just didn’t match the rest of us. She was nervous and she looked different.” Pew observes that one of the houses they visit “was wooden and old, all its planks buckling and splintered, pale blue paint chipping. Through the neglect, it was clear this place had been cared for in other ways.” While these phrases may not stand out to readers less familiar with the region, these kinds of juxtapositions seem to typify the South. People are kind and generous – to those who fit in. There may be things that appear run-down on the outside but are cared for with pride in other ways. 

Assumptions about who or what Pew is allow the novel to comment on issues of gender, race, nationality, and acceptance. Some readers may feel, as the townspeople do, compelled to define Pew in some way, but others will turn their attention, instead, to the ways in which the townspeople fail to be truly helpful. After all, do we help only those who we see clearly or understand? Only those who are not so different? Does an external appearance really have much to do with the level of care something or someone deserves or has received? Or are we called upon to help a person in need regardless of age, race, gender, or origin? We may even question whether or not Pew needs the help of the townspeople at all. Perhaps they would have just as well passed through without stopping. Some readers may end up agreeing with Nelson, a character who tells Pew, “I’m just sorry you came here.”

By Catherine Lacey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published July 21, 2020