REVIEW: Pet by Catherine Chidgey
Dear Catherine Chidgey:
This book was mentioned to me by the esteemed Janine, who has more than once (or twice) directed me towards smart thrillers, even though it’s not a genre she reads herself. Pet ended up being very smart and unexpectedly dark.
Justine Crieve is a 12-year-old in 1984 Wellington, New Zealand. Her mother has died recently after a long struggle with breast cancer, and her father, who owns an antiques shop, drinks and grieves. Justine attends the local Catholic school, and vacillates between feeling the same numb grief for her mother that her father experiences, and being a typical adolescent, concerned with the doings of the popular girls and the rowdy antics of the handsome boys. Justine also suffers from epilepsy, a condition that embarrasses her. She finds comfort in the family of her best friend, Amy Fong, whose parents welcome Justine into their home and treat her like part of the family.
Justine is in the 8th grade (or the New Zealand equivalent; next year she’ll be in high school). Her teacher, newly arrived from Christchurch, is the glamorous Mrs. Price. Blonde and charismatic, Mrs. Price holds sway over her class and picks favorites – choosing certain students to clean erasers at the end of the day, run errands for her, and eventually, inviting a group of them to her home. Justine falls into being a favorite, a move that alienates her from Amy.
Interspersed through the book are scenes set 30 years later, where Justine is a mother of one and concerned with the care of her father, who suffers from dementia and is in a nursing home. There Justine meets an aide who strongly reminds her of Mrs. Price.
Back in 1984, Mrs. Price is both inappropriate and creepy, but her adoring pupils don’t seem to see it. She forces one of the students to amputate the leg of the class pet, an axolotl named Susan, after it’s injured (the circumstances of the injury appear to be suspicious). Throughout the year, there’s a rash of thefts of small items from almost every student in class. Eventually Amy alone appears not have been targeted, so suspicion falls on her as the thief. Mrs. Price eventually has the students all write their prime suspect’s name on a slip of paper; later she announces the consensus to the class.
(As someone who went to Catholic school in the same time period, albeit in San Francisco, not Wellington, the 8th graders in Pet feel both familiar and alien to me. They seem at times more innocent than I remember being – I don’t think we were interested in Cabbage Patch Dolls at that age – and paradoxically more vicious. The girls in class seem to think nothing of throwing “you should just kill yourself” out as an insult.)
So Mrs. Price is not exactly Teacher of the Year, but again, few are able to see it. One of the students, Dom, a boy from a large Catholic family, befriends Justine and cautions her about Mrs. Price. An older nun at the school, Sister Bronislava, seems to be onto Mrs. Price, but the school’s headmaster and others champion her. Justine is mesmerized by her. It takes the better part of the book, a shocking tragedy, and Mrs. Price’s eventual romantic involvement with Justine’s father for the scales to begin to fall from Justine’s eyes.
Justine is a challenging narrator; while one feels sympathy for her loss and empathizes with her desire to fit in, her increasing cruelty towards Amy is painful to witness. There’s a certain hardness in Justine that’s unsettling; it’s evident in the short sections featuring her as an adult, as well. Also, her epileptic episodes result in her losing time and memories, casting a sinister pall over her recollections of some of the later events in the book.
The denouement was surprisingly lurid; I did not quite expect such melodramatic happenings. I’ve often said I love melodrama, so I can’t complain too much. But it does deliver an extra punch of darkness into a book that was already kind of dark to begin with. Justine, and through her the reader, is left with an unanswered question that affects how one feels about her as a character and thus the book as a whole. I decided on what I believe, but there’s still a little niggle of doubt.
Pet is very well written and compelling, but it’s a book that my head liked better than my heart (my heart doesn’t do as well with moral ambiguity). I’m giving it a straight B; I will be on the lookout for future books from the author.