Pet by Catherine Chidgey - review by Lindsay Duguid

Lindsay Duguid

Trouble in the Schoolyard

Pet

By

Europa Editions 323pp £14.99
 

Pet is a novel made from childhood memories. Catherine Chidgey’s narrator, Justine, looks back on her time as a young girl at St Michael’s, a Roman Catholic school in New Zealand, thirty years before. The school scenes alternate with episodes from the present, when Justine visits her confused father in his retirement home.

At St Michael’s, the religious statues look out onto scenes of childish malice, jealous glances and territorial playground fights between the girls and attractive, rowdy boys. As well as having to contend with all this, twelve-year-old Justine is full of grief at her mother’s recent death and worry about her father’s solitary drinking. She has seizures but no one seems to care: ‘Nobody could ask me if I was coping.’ Solace comes in the form of the popular teacher Mrs Price, a glamorous figure with long hair and short skirts, very different from the other staff: head teacher Mr Chisholm, who beats pupils with a strap, pious Father Lynch and elderly Sister Bronislava. Mrs Price encourages her pupils by addressing them as ‘my darlings’ and cultivates favourites as her ‘pets’. Along with her classmates, Justine is drawn in by her dangerous charm.

The school scenes are full of beguiling details about friends and games, lessons and school customs. They are depicted in a tapestry-like format, with incidents crowded into a constrained space, the crushes, teasing and weeping closely described, in all their strangeness. Mrs Price sports a ‘crucifix with a

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