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by Catherine Chidgey
Europa Editions, August 2026
336 pages
ISBN: 160945930X

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At the beginning of this remarkable novel, the narrator, 40-year-old Justine Crieve, recalls a moment in the early autumn of 1984 when, lying in the grass and quietly observing the scene around her, she suffers the first recurrence of the epileptic seizures she thought she had outgrown. It is a disease that qualifies her as an unreliable narrator as the seizures leave her with uncertain memories regarding events that take place just before, during, and immediately after the event. This is just the most recent misfortune to strike. Her mother had recently died of cancer after a lengthy struggle that has forced Justine, an only child, to take on domestic responsibilities that she was really too young to assume. Her father, who is the proprietor of modest antiques shop, seeks solace in whisky and, while he does not make a public spectacle of himself and is still concerned with his daughter, is generally emotionally unavailable after dinner.

As is common among most children of Justine's age, her life is centred in school. She is in her last year at St Michael's primary in Wellington, NZ and will be heading off to high school in the next school year. She is in the early stages of puberty and is uncertain about how to get fitted for a bra. Her best friend is Amy Fong, the daughter of the Chinese owners of a grocery. The Fongs had converted to the Catholic faith in order, as Mrs Fong explains, "to fit in," as well as to qualify their children for St Michael's. But while Amy and her little brother were welcome in the school as converts, Amy at least was never fully accepted as anything but a dubious outsider by her classmates.

If Justine is forced to cope with profound changes that year, the world in which she was growing up is also changing, although few seem fully conscious of it. St Michael's, once staffed and run by a traditional order of Catholic nuns, now employs lay persons as staff. The most notable is Justine's eighth-year teacher who is reported to have lost her husband and daughter in an accident so tragic that it cannot be spoken of. She has relocated to Wellington where she sets about manipulating the emotions of her pre-adolescent charges to an extraordinary degree. The book's title refers to her approach. Whereas when I was in grade school, "teacher's pet" was a term of utter contempt, something to be vigorously denied, almost all of Mrs Price's charges vie for the title, even when it involves cleaning up messes and emptying trash. One can be demoted back to the ranks of the unloved for no apparent reason and those who suffer this fate feel utterly bereft. The few students who do not participate in the contest for Mrs Price's approval do not spring from Wellington's white middle-class.

Justine retains her place on the list of pets rather longer than most. This may be a result of her absolute devotion to Mrs Price who she hopes can fill the echoing void created by her mother's death. Or it may be in part be that Justine's father is the only widower at hand and the teacher has a vacancy to fill. Justine is, however, pulled in two directions. Her prospective step-mother has singled out Amy to be the goat of the game she is playing with the class, to be the focus of all the bad feelings her manipulative ploys arouse in her flock of twelve-year-olds. Justine is drawn to the possibility that she can finally belong - with Mrs Price as her new mother, she will no longer be the odd girl. But Amy has always been her close friend and Amy's family has treated Justine warmly.

Chidgey's examination of Price's campaign is both subtle and brilliant and is all the more horrifying as it is directed against vulnerable children. Of course it bears an evil fruit - a shocking act of violence that was hard to predict but once revealed seems inevitable. At least so it does in 1984. But what about 2014, when the 40-year-old Justine, now visiting her father in his care home, is startled by the striking resemblance between the woman assisting him and Mrs Price? Justine suffered a seizure during the original event but her memory appears to have cleared a bit over the years and now she is able at least to cause the reader to entertain the possibility of an even more catastrophic series of events than had been imagined.

PET is extremely compelling. While reading it, memories of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" kept surfacing. Actually, the two works have little in common save for the central question of the influence of the teacher over the not altogether-innocent pupil. Both books refuse to be anything but ambiguous on the matter, leaving the reader free to wrestle with the question and its implications.

Like Henry James' foray into horror and the supernatural, Catherine Chidgey's approach to crime fiction evades genre confinement. Crimes both major and minor are certainly committed but there is nothing about this novel that would bar it from consideration as an entry in a prize competition for literary fiction. Indeed, I would love to see it shortlisted for both a Booker and an Edgar this year.

Prize or no prize, PET is remarkable for the clarity of its prose, its brilliant exposition of Mrs Price's manipulation of a classroom of children (and several adults who should have known better) and for the way it is able to evoke a strong emotional response in the reader without resorting to melodrama. Both serious and satisfying, it is likely to remain with the reader well after the last page is read.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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