Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

BooksJune 25, 2023

Looking through the windows of a haunted house: a review of Pet by Catherine Chidgey

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Hot on the heels of The Axeman’s Carnival’s big win at this year’s Ockham awards arrives Catherine Chidgey’s next novel, Pet. Sam Brooks reviews.

There is nothing so relatable as a shitty high school experience. Even if you happened to enjoy high school, you probably had at least one experience that sticks with you like that one bit of gum underneath your boot that only clings on more stubbornly as time passes. The specifics are different, but the underlying causes are likely to be similar: it’s probably an experience that involved a messed up power-dynamic, a little bit of adolescent sociopathy, and more than a little bit of self-ignorance. If you’re lucky, it probably just involved you and other people at your school. If you’re especially unfortunate, it involved an adult who should have known better.

Pet – a brilliant, simple title, one that you can roll over and say a thousand different ways in your brain, none of them appropriate when referring to a human being – is the latest novel from Ockham Award-winner Catherine Chidgey. It follows, in two timelines, an everyday woman called Justine. In the present day, she looks after her ailing father, in hospice care as his mind pulls slowly away from him, with her teenage daughter by her side. In the past, 1984, Justine attends a convent school in Wellington. Her mother has just died (living mothers don’t make for good thrillers), her father deals with his grief in a classic late-20th century Kiwi dad way (i.e. not at all), and she has a tendency to have unexplained seizures (a brilliant dramatic device, well executed here).

The crux of the story, and the drama, comes when Justine’s new teacher Mrs Price arrives in town. She is widowed, glamorous, and breathes new life into the convent. Justine, and her entire class, falls under her spell immediately. It’s another relatable thing – who of us hasn’t been in a class with a new teacher who suddenly feels like the one person in the world you need to impress most?

What unfolds is a thriller that compels not because anything especially ridiculous happens, but because it all feels hauntingly close to home. Chidgey’s attention to detail is especially helpful: the classroom and its inhabitants feel like it could be straight out of any Christian-based educational institution from the past 50 years, especially with details like Justine’s books “covered with leftover wallpaper from home” and the picture of the Virgin Mary gazing out from her picture frame “her heart full of roses and fire”.

Strong cover game from Chidgey so far this year.

As I read, I kept on thinking of Pet as a haunted house with impeccably clean windows, all the easier to see the horror within. Even though what Justine is subject to is a mixture of gaslighting, grooming and scapegoating (so, you know, abuse), she’s unable to see it as such until it’s far too late. She loves Mrs Price, wants to emulate Mrs Price, and wants to keep her in her life, through a mixture of emotional transference, psychosexual attraction, and because if Mrs Price’s light is shining on her, it means it’s off of the rest of her classmates. However, adult readers, burdened as we are with age and experience, can see the horrors right from the start.

Even through the lens of an unreliable narrator, any right-thinking adult can see that Justine, if not her entire class, is being held under the thrall of a mentally unwell adult. It speaks to Chidgey’s brilliance, and command of this very particular voice, that the main horror of Pet is not anything specific that Justine goes through, but that this child is conditioned to believe that the “abuse-by-a-thousand-cuts” that she experiences is acceptable. The audience knows this isn’t going to end well, because how can it? We’re adults, closer in age to Mrs Price than Justine. We’ve heard these stories, perhaps lived them, and we know how bad it can get.

In that way, it’s a thriller that seems uniquely, horribly, suited to the current moment. It’s hard to read the book and not think of all of the abuses that have gone on in institutions that were meant to be safe spaces for children, places of learning and solace. Pet never gets quite that heavy – it is, after all, thriller and not horror – but the book gains an extra weight from being among the current moment. We know that these systems allow for people to wield power like a principal’s leather belt; indiscriminately, and without need or reason.

When Pet eventually does take off, and starts to sit extremely comfortably in its chosen genre – out of the bounds of reality, well within the given frame of plausibility – it becomes a horrible joy to read. As Mrs Price infects her pupils’ lives more and more, as the injustices mount against Justine (perhaps an on-the-nose name there), we want to know how this could possibly resolve. We know, from the two time periods, that it will resolve, and probably not in a way that is pleasant for Mrs Price, and Chidgey throttles us towards the ending with breathtaking momentum. If there’s any recent book I’d recommend reading in one sitting, it’s this one. But once you start, I doubt you’d need my recommendation to keep going.

If there’s one thing to quibble about with the novel, it’s that the nature of Mrs Price hews a little too close to novels that aren’t anywhere near as smart or as assured as Pet is. An unexplained mental illness, complete with vague needs for bottles of pills, is the realm of Lifetime movies and pulp novels, which is not to devalue the entertainment that either of those brings. Chidgey gets away with it, thanks mostly to the lens of the unreliable narrator who wouldn’t have access to the diagnostic language that we have today (let alone the desire to do so), but it can cut a little too close to the trope of “the evil other woman” for my comfort. The rest of the novel is so precise, so detail perfect (the references to Lorraine Downes being crowned Miss Universe feel especially poignant and aching) and has such generosity of humanity to everybody in it that the lean into this trope, accidental or otherwise, keeps pulling me out of that brilliance.

Chidgey has proven, again and again, that she writes thrillers with the best of them. She does something different, and threads an admirably thin tightrope, with Pet. She draws on experiences that could be truly triggering for an audience – because whomst of us has truly, really resolved that high school trauma, truly removed the gum from the bottom of the shoe – and rather than use anything highly specific, instead blows it up on a canvas that is in part haunting dreadful, in part unsettlingly psychosexual, and in its entirety thrilling. 

Hacks draw on relatable trauma to score emotional points and brutal, leaking catharsis. Legends draw on that trauma to get something different; something that might let you view your own experience through another lens, another kind of emotion, and process it that way.

Pet by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $38) can be purchased at Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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