Review: Pet

Reviewed by Dionne Christian

Author: Catherine Chidgey. Reviewer: Dionne Christian. ‘Catherine Chidgey is causing confusion. Unity Books explains via social media post that when people asking for Chidgey’s new book, they have to clarify whether they want The Axeman’s Carnival, winner of the 2023 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, or Chidgey’s actual newest book, Pet… both are a testament to Chidgey’s virtuoso talent …’ June 2023 release

Catherine Chidgey is causing confusion.

In a social media post, Unity Books explained that when people ask for Catherine Chidgey’s new book, they have to clarify whether they want The Axeman’s Carnival, recently named winner of the 2023 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, or Chidgey’s actual newest book, Pet which appeared on shelves this month.

These books should not be confused because there are marked differences, especially in tone, but both are a testament to Chidgey’s virtuoso talent for building convincing worlds, peopled with multifaceted characters and peppered with thorny moral questions, where there’s never a word out of place. The writing in Pet is sparser than her previous novels, but it suits this story well by making it more propulsive particularly in the final pages where plentiful plot twists and turns are brought to a conclusion that I can almost guarantee you won’t see coming. That Pet is a book that pivots around memory is signalled from the outset:

‘I know it’s Mrs Price, and I know it can’t be Mrs Price: that’s what I keep thinking.  My eyes are playing tricks on me, or the light is, or my memory is.’

It’s 2014 and Justine Crieve, a fortysomething mother of one, is visiting her father, who has dementia, in his care home when she spies a new nurse who catapults her back to 1984. From the outset, and as the story moves between 1984 and 2014, there’s the juxtaposition of Justine’s apparently sound memory and her father’s rapidly fading one. Who can we rely on to remember the truth especially when the past starts to push its way into the present?

In 1984, Justine is a 12-year-old schoolgirl in her final weeks at her Catholic primary school where, like most of her peers, she is desperate to fit in but not stand out, and easily swayed – especially given that her mother has recently died and she is, more or less, now parenting her bereft father. She is longing to be a part of something, to feel seen, appreciated and loved. Who doesn’t want that?

It is a closeknit community, where everyone knows everyone – or do they? So busy are they with keeping up appearances, things are kept at a surface level. This desire for perfection – at least, the appearance of – is even more keenly felt by Justine who has seizures that she tries to minimise and conceal from her classmates.  After all, what adolescent wants to be …  different?

Chidgey plays with these questions throughout the book, creating a straight-jacketed world where things are constantly slightly off-kilter. Into this already precarious space comes the charismatic teacher, Mrs Price:

‘She was new to town and new to St Michael’s that year, and younger than our parents, and prettier than our mothers, who wore fawn slacks and plastic rain bonnets.  She made us feel special just by the way she looked at us, as if we had something important to say and she couldn’t wait to hear it.’

Practically everyone is enthralled by Mrs Price – Justine, her classmates, her teachers, the parents. The pupils begin to compete for her attention, to be her pet, and, as Chidgey subtly but surely dials up the tension, a sense of unease grows about who exactly Mrs Price is and what game she’s playing with impressionable young minds. (In Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, the fading beauty and increasingly unhinged Blanche DuBois was once a school teacher. Widowed Mrs Price, with her bottle blonde hair and bathroom cabinet containing rows and rows of makeup, made me think of Blanche and wonder if this was the kind of teacher she might have been.)

There’s a particularly uneasy scene where Mrs Price invites a select group of girls to her home, making them up and then inviting them to apply makeup to her, dress her and shave her legs. Boundaries are being crossed but to what end and will anyone, maybe one of the adults, call a halt to it? It’s here, too, we get a stronger sense that Justine is an unreliable narrator and that Pet may be something darker than a coming of age story about a woman looking back, with the wisdom of age and experience, over a strange time in her life. 

‘Even with everything that happened afterwards, in unguarded moments I still find myself longing for that day. It shimmers in my memory…’

As we’ve come to expect from Chidgey, there’s some brilliant writing where the seemingly innocent and safe is described in terms that are anything but. The school playground looks like a giant’s garden; the Virgin Mary has a heart full of roses and fire, and when Justine visits a friend, they sit in a warm sunroom, passing time by flicking through an album of coins while younger children play rough and tumble games and shout, “Give yourself to the Dark Side!  It is the only way you can save your friends.” 

Initially, though, it all feels so warm. Anyone who was a teenager in 1984 will smile as Chidgey writes about Miss New Zealand Lorraine Downs being crowned Miss Universe and the collective delight most of the country took in the win or how dreamy and wonderful cruises aboard television’s The Love Boat looked.They’ll remember longing for Duran Duran to tour the country (it was never going to happen), wanting to look like Debbie Harry or not being old enough to see the film Risky Business. Chidgey captures it all, carefully and delicately laying it out so the true horror of it hits only after you’ve read a passage, basked in the glow of a memory or two and then realised how messed up it actually all was:

‘I flicked through a New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, taking in the shapes and poses of the models in their Stylish outfits for Rainy Days.  Britain’s Young Slimmer of 1983 said she lost over four stone because her husband told her he didn’t like fat women. A royal biographer revealed that the Queen had to maintain her size-12 figures as her clothes were planned a year in advance.’

What a past - those “good old days” of everyday misogyny, the emphasis on keeping up appearances and being held hostage by conservatism and conformity. Then there was the casual racism. Justine’s best friend, Amy Fong, becomes an easy target for the teacher to cast out and use to shore up her own position as protector, friend and confidant. By now, we’re deep into psychological thriller territory and it’s a credit to Chidgey’s skill that the writing loses none of its craft as she brings the story to its unexpected end.

But, compelling and dramatic as it is, does that conclusion satisfy after the careful groundwork Chidgey has laid, prompting those thought-provoking moments that make you question your own memories? What game is she playing here? Yes, Catherine Chidgey is causing confusion but it’s worth being unsettled by one of our greatest writers as she demonstrates, once again, just how multitalented she is with this latest provocative and layered novel.

 Reviewed by Dionne Christian