Review: A stranger seeks refuge in Catherine Lacey's timely, confounding new novel 'Pew'

Patty Rhule
Special for USA TODAY

Novelist Catherine Lacey presents a potent – and timely – premise in her new book, “Pew” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 207 pp., ★★★ out of four).

A young person – name, gender and origin unknown – fleeing something seeks a place to sleep and finds sanctuary in a church. She/he/they awaken in a pew alongside a family who take the stranger in and dub the newcomer “Pew.” (Maybe shape-shifting Tilda Swinton could play Pew in the movie adaptation.) 

Pew refuses to speak with most of the praying, prying townspeople, who wonder if Pew is male or female, black or white. Pew’s silence inspires some people to fill the void with startling confessions. The few people with whom Pew shares tiny morsels of information are the outcasts: Tammy, who lives on the bad side of town, yet shows a generosity of spirit absent in the wealthier residents; and Nelson, adopted after his family was murdered, as he says, “in the name of God.”

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Lacey is a gifted writer, on par with the best of horror writers at ratcheting up tension. Pew has arrived in this unnamed place the week before the Forgiveness Festival, an annual event in which friends, family and neighbors confess their sins aloud. As the festival approaches, the suspense grows. TV news reports anguished scenes of people who disappeared in a neighboring town.

“Pew,” by Catherine Lacey.

But Pew’s persistent refusal to unveil the mystery of their existence erodes the Christian community’s sympathy and desire to help into mistrust and rejection.

Lacey makes a strong case against the human desire to size up and categorize the people we meet. If the point is that the places where the broken (that is, all of us) seek succor – such as faith communities, families and friendship – too often reject the people who don’t quite fit, Lacey’s point is well made and taken.

Catherine Lacey

But as playwright Anton Chekhov’s rules of drama say, if you show a gun in an opening scene, at some point, it should be fired. The whole premise of this book is townspeople – and readers for that matter – wondering just who or what Pew is: male or female, demon or angel, living or dead. We never quite find out.

Maybe that’s Lacey’s way of telling us we don’t need to know – Pew just is. But it’s deeply unsatisfying in a book that starts with such promise.