It’s easy to trust the enchanting people we encounter who make us feel like the most important thing in the world. Especially when we’re young and are always looking for new sources of joy and self-esteem. But as Catherine Chidgey reminds us in her latest novel, Pet, the most charming role models often warrant the most suspicion.
The book begins with forty-two-year-old Justine, who regularly visits her father in a home, watching his memory and health decline. When her own memory is jogged on one of the visits, we stumble back in time with her into a completely different world—one when she was twelve and going through several traumas at once.
Most of the book takes place in this earlier period, the setting and story of which Chidgey writes with sharp and vivid detail, making it hard to ever want to leave. She plays with memory and what it means to lose memories, or to never have them in the first place.
Twelve-year-old Justine is prone to seizures. She has just lost her mother to cancer and lives with her father in Wellington, New Zealand, where he owns an antique shop. She attends Catholic primary school and becomes taken with her young teacher, Mrs. Price.
Mrs. Price is almost too beautiful to comprehend, drives a Corvette, and lives in a sparkly home made for a princess—at least from Justine’s perspective. Each student wants to be Mrs. Price’s pet, to be adored by her. But something isn’t quite right—Mrs. Price picks favorites to do special jobs for her after school and dotes on them. But she brushes off the other children and issues odd punishments. She pops mysterious pills and, rumor has it, lost her family in a car accident.
When things start to go missing in the classroom, the children turn against each other. Justine even distances herself from her best friend, Amy, who is spurned by teacher and students alike after being accused of being the thief. As the novel progressively reveals dark truths about the characters, all sides of Mrs. Price emerge, and tragedy strikes the school community—again.
Chidgey expertly sets up this page-turner with the bits of information Justine slowly learns, like breadcrumbs, alongside the reader, and tension builds when Justine refuses to believe certain truths she uncovers.
Objects play a large role in the story. Things have always been important to Justine and her father at the antique shop—assessing value and memorizing the flaws, however small. After they lose Justine’s mother, her clothes remain intact in her wardrobe. One of the items stolen in the classroom is a pen Justine’s mother gave her after a trip, with a miniature ferry inside of it that moves up and down when she writes with it.
As Justine is thinking about her lost pen while cleaning her house she thinks, “Things mattered, they mattered: they reminded us who we were.”
And just then, she finds words and even full sentences on objects around the home. Before she died, her mother had written messages on almost everything with a marker only a black light could see. They’re nonsensical—Will it hurt? Will I know who I am? Hold on tight to the chains, legs back, legs forward to kick the sky. When beggars die, there are no comets seen. As Justine begins to experience betrayal, confusion, and deceit, she turns to the messages for answers. It is a respite from Justine’s reality, a way to calm her down and avoid seizures. This relationship she carries on with her mother after she’s gone becomes one of the most forceful components of the story, which Chidgey handles with care.
The novel makes many connections under the theme of memory. Justine’s mother lost memories as she was dying, and thirty years after the heart of the story takes place, Justine cares for her father who has dementia. Justine doesn’t remember what happens right before a seizure, and because stress can cause them, some of the book’s most pivotal moments happen within these spaces of lost memory.
Now, as forty-two-year-old Justine visits her father in the home, she doesn’t fully know what happened all those years ago. She can rely on what other people tell her, but what should she trust more—their words with all kinds of ulterior motives, or her own unreliable recollections?
“I imagine it so vividly it feels like a memory,” she reflects about one of the book’s biggest moments of catastrophe, when she blacked out from a seizure.
When forty-two-year-old Justine makes a discovery about the person caring for her father, the past comes rushing forward, and it’s clear she hasn’t let it go. How can you let go of something you can’t quite remember?
Or, can memory play favorites, too, leaving out what we’re afraid to see? Chidgey seems to say yes.
Full of delicious mystery and thrill, Pet showcases manipulation and the unthinkable things people will do when their life and reputation are on the line.
By Catherine Chidgey
Published August 8, 2023
Meredith Boe is a Pushcart Prize–nominated writer, editor, and poet. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passengers Journal, Newfound, Another Chicago Magazine, Chicago Reader, Mud Season Review, After Hours, and elsewhere, and her chapbook What City won the 2018 Debut Series Chapbook Contest from Paper Nautilus.