MLA Platinum Award Press Release

Editor's Choice

HamnetClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Maggie O'Farrell

Summary

A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family's land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.

A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.

BookBrowse Review

William Shakespeare's name is never used in Hamnet — a conspicuous absence around which Maggie O'Farrell forms her richly imaginative narrative. Instead, the novel tells the story of those closest to Shakespeare: his parents, John and Mary; his wife Agnes; his daughter Susanna; and his twin children Hamnet and Judith. Shakespeare himself features in the narrative, though he is only ever described in relation to those around him, referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, the son. The result of this narrative decision is twofold: it pushes Shakespeare's family to the foreground, but it also humanizes Shakespeare himself by reminding the reader that none of his works were created in a vacuum. This is the central conceit around which the novel's climax is formed, as O'Farrell imagines the potential influence of Hamnet's death in 1596 on Hamlet, written between 1599 and 1601.

Despite the novel's title, Agnes is its protagonist. O'Farrell draws on the limited historical detail that we have about the real Agnes as her backdrop, and then fleshes her out into a compelling character. Portrayed as a village outcast, there are whispers and rumors throughout the book that she's a witch; this is heightened by a hint of magical realism in which Agnes is able to divine certain details about the future. She knows, for example, that she will have two children standing at her bedside when she dies; she is shocked then when she gives birth to twins, already having one older child (the reader, of course, understands that her vision is accurate, knowing that Hamnet will die young).

The first two-thirds of the novel are split into a dual timeline, bouncing back and forth between the week of Hamnet's death (the present), and the blossoming romance between William and Agnes (the past). It's a tender yet fraught courtship, and the pacing here is slow and deliberate. The final third speeds up and takes place after the death of their son. Both parts are equally as successful — the languid pace is sustained by O'Farrell's lyrical prose, and the more frantic pace is made tense and urgent by it.

Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicenter, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns. This moment is the absent mother's: the boy, the empty house, the deserted yard, the unheard cry. Him standing here, at the back of the house, calling for the people who had fed him, swaddled him, rocked him to sleep, held his hand as he took his first steps, taught him to use a spoon, to blow on broth before he ate it, to take care crossing the street, to let sleeping dogs lie, to swill out a cup before drinking, to stay away from deep water. It will lie at her very core, for the rest of her life.

This novel is gentle and domestic and, in many ways, speaks to grief as a commonality of the human experience. But despite O'Farrell's light touch with historical detail, it's a novel that cannot be removed from its Shakespearean context. The allusions to Shakespeare's works are more hints and whispers than overt references, but any eagle-eyed Shakespeare fan will enjoy the way O'Farrell plays with expectations, ducking around moments that could be turned into fan service by an author with a heavier hand. And what if I fail? Shakespeare asks Agnes at one point, echoing Macbeth's line If we should fail? Agnes's response is not, however, Lady Macbeth's famous retort (We fail!) — instead she says You won't fail. I know it.

The point is clear — Shakespeare's plays were all works of fiction; Agnes likely never said the words We fail!/ But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we'll not fail to her husband, thus inspiring Lady Macbeth's famous line. But as reality and fiction often exist in a symbiotic relationship, O'Farrell imagines the subtler influences of Agnes and Hamnet on Shakespeare in a novel that's as intimate and human as it is grandiose.

Book reviewed by Rachel Hullett

Beyond the Book:
Anne Hathaway and Hamnet Shakespeare

Painting of Anne HathawayLittle is known about Shakespeare's family, names and birth dates aside — and even names are tricky. Though commonly referred to as Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife may have actually been named Agnes, according to a will left by her father. O'Farrell makes the decision to use the name Agnes in her novel Hamnet, but she references this confusion in the narrative itself, in a scene where she introduces herself as Agnes but Shakespeare mishears her and thinks she said Anne.

The real Agnes, or Anne, was born in 1556, likely in a town called Shottery near Stratford, and was raised by father Richard, a local landowner, and stepmother Joan in a one-story farmhouse called Hewley Farm. There were eight children in their home, three by Anne's mother and the younger five by Joan. Upon the death of her father in 1581, her brother Bartholomew took over the running of Hewley.

Anne was eight years older than Shakespeare, who was born in 1564. They married when she was 26 and he was 18, and their daughter Susanna was born six months after their wedding. Once married, Anne left Hewley Farm to move in with Shakespeare's family on Henley Street. Their twins Hamnet and Judith were born in 1585. They were likely named after the local baker who later witnessed Shakespeare's will, Hamnet, and his wife Judith.

Shortly after the birth of the twins, Shakespeare left Stratford for London, though he would write often and visit his family on occasion (in 1611, he retired to Stratford for good). In 1596, Hamnet died at age 11. The cause was undocumented and therefore unknown to this day; however, it is generally believed that he died of the plague, which had hit the region the year before. Later that year, Anne, Susanna and Judith moved out of Shakespeare's parents' home and into New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford.

The influence of Hamnet's death on the works of Shakespeare is not concretely documented. However, many believe that Constance's final monologue in King John, in which she mourns the kidnapping and death of her son Arthur, were written about Hamnet:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then have I reason to be fond of grief?

It is believed that Shakespeare wrote King John in the 1590s but it is unclear exactly when, so it may or may not have been written after Hamnet's death. King Lear, however, was composed in 1606, and some of the final words Lear speaks over the dead body of his youngest child Cordelia echo the same rawness and emotional intensity of Constance's final words:

No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

The effect of Hamnet's death on Anne is even more uncertain, as no further details of her life were recorded, but Maggie O'Farrell gives voice to her grief in Hamnet.

Shakespeare and Anne remained married until Shakespeare's death in 1616, and he left her his "second-best bed" in his will. This detail has been perceived as a slight against Anne, but in all likelihood it was a reference to the fact that the best bed in their home was kept in the guest room, meaning the second-best was their marriage bed. Anne died in 1623.

Susanna went on to marry John Hall, a local physician, and died in 1649. The Halls had one child, Elizabeth, who did not have children of her own. Judith married Thomas Quiney, a vintner, and had three children, all of whom she outlived. Her firstborn, named Shakespeare Hall after his grandfather, lived less than a year. Judith died in 1662, 66 years after her twin brother.

Painting of Anne Hathaway by Roger Brian Dunn based on drawing by Nathaniel Curzon, courtesy of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

After the Last BorderClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Jessica Goudeau

Summary

The welcoming and acceptance of immigrants and refugees has been central to America's identity for centuries--yet America has periodically turned its back at the times of greatest humanitarian need. After the Last Border is an intimate look at the lives of two women as they struggle for the twenty-first century American dream, having won the "golden ticket" to settle as refugees in Austin, Texas.

Mu Naw, a Christian from Myanmar struggling to put down roots with her family, was accepted after decades in a refugee camp at a time when America was at its most open to displaced families; and Hasna, a Muslim from Syria, agrees to relocate as a last resort for the safety of her family--only to be cruelly separated from her children by a sudden ban on refugees from Muslim countries. Writer and activist Jessica Goudeau tracks the human impacts of America's ever-shifting refugee policy as both women narrowly escape from their home countries and begin the arduous but lifesaving process of resettling in Austin, Texas--a city that would show them the best and worst of what America has to offer.

After the Last Border situates a dramatic, character-driven story within a larger history--the evolution of modern refugee resettlement in the United States, beginning with World War II and ending with current closed-door policies--revealing not just how America's changing attitudes toward refugees has influenced policies and laws, but also the profound effect on human lives.

BookBrowse Review

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the number of displaced people around the world is at a record high. Of the nearly 71 million people forcibly displaced in 2018, 25.9 million were refugees fleeing their countries from war, violence or persecution. Despite the global awareness of this issue, the stories of these refugees are often left untold. In After the Last Border, author Jessica Goudeau shares the experiences of two refugee women living in the United States.

Mu Naw is a Christian from Myanmar (formerly Burma). She is Karen (pronounced "kah-REN"), one of the many non-Burmese ethnic minorities persecuted by the state. Born into conflict, she crossed the border into Thailand when she was five years old with others from her village to escape violence. For decades, she lived in refugee camps. With each move, her life splintered, even when she came to the United States as an adult. Mu Naw, her husband, and their two children immigrated with the help of a refugee organization in 2007, leaving behind their entire way of life, including her mother, extended family and community at her former refugee camp.

Hasna is a Muslim from Syria. Most of her life had been happy and peaceful. In a generations-old family home in the city of Daraa, Hasna raised children, collected fine rugs and china, tended to her terrace garden, cooked with the freshest produce, gossiped with her neighbors and listened to her favorite singer, Fairuz, on the radio (see Beyond the Book). That idyllic life was destroyed when civil war broke out after demonstrations affiliated with the Arab Spring incited violent retribution by Bashar al-Assad's regime. For years, Hasna remained in Syria, striving to secure safety for all six of her children before leaving her country. She hoped the atrocities there would result in international mitigation, but when the situation continued to deteriorate and no foreign help came, she fled to Jordan. Approached by a refugee organization and promised a better life and family reunification in the U.S., Hasna and a fraction of her family arrived in early 2016.

In After the Last Border, Jessica Goudeau narrates the lives Mu Naw and Hasna had prior to coming to the United States, then shifts focus to their experiences in Austin, Texas where they both settled. Under different refugee and immigration policies, and from different countries and cultures, their stories are unique. Yet Mu Naw and Hasna share many experiences, struggling to learn a new language, obtain employment opportunities, navigate American culture and process trauma. And on an identity level, they both must reconcile the in-betweenness that accompanies being a refugee when often "their hearts and their bodies are not in the same place."

On a storytelling level, this book is remarkable for honoring the voices of its subjects. The author knew nothing about refugees until she met and befriended Mu Naw just six months after she and her family settled in Austin. As they forged a friendship, Goudeau began engaging in activist work, organizing night ESL classes and helping to form a women's cooperative of artisans. She learned that Mu Naw and other refugees wanted to tell their stories so that the world would not forget what happened to them. Many refugees lack the language capacity and time to do so. Even more worry about the potential hazards of speaking about their experiences after surviving and escaping violence and persecution. Goudeau aims to give Mu Naw and Hasna as much narrative control as possible based on years of interviews while concealing identifying information, relying on skilled translators and writing in third-person to suppress opinion and bias. The result is a humanizing, tragic and heartfelt narrative that seems to capture Mu Naw and Hasna's voices as closely as possible.

In addition to these deeply personal insights into the lives of two contemporary refugees, the author interjects chapters about refugee and immigration policies and practices in the United States. With an emphasis on post-World War II, she explains the essential components of these policies during each presidential administration from Carter to Trump. This information gives a wider context to what Mu Naw and Hasna experience, and it explains why public perception on immigrants and refugees has morphed so drastically in recent years. Few books are able to so clearly and empathetically show the relationship between policy and people.

After the Last Border is an urgent and necessary book, especially for American readers. Powerful and compassionate, these women's stories linger in the mind and provide a greater understanding of the plight of refugees around the world.

Book reviewed by Jamie Chornoby

Beyond the Book:
Fairuz: The Voice of Lebanon

Lebanese singer Fairuz in concertFairuz is a Lebanese singer and actress, often hailed as the voice of Lebanon and the voice of hope. Having recorded over 1,500 songs and sold over 100 million records, her body of work is vast and globally admired.

Born in the Chouf region in the 1930s with the name Nuhad al-Haddad, her family moved to Beirut when she was young. It was here, singing at a school event in 1950, that she was heard by musician and teacher Mohammed Fleifel, who offered her a spot at the Lebanese Conservatory.

When prominent musician and head of the Lebanese Radio Station Halim El Roumi heard her sing, he insisted she be brought to the airwaves. In the recording studio, he gave her the name Fairuz – with various spellings ranging from Fairouz to Fayruz – which translates to "turquoise," a compliment to her crystalline voice. Fairuz quickly became a hit in the Arab world and she collaborated with numerous other popular artists of the time.

Musically, Fairuz's success can be attributed to both her talent and her distinctive style. She is known for blending musical approaches, balancing traditional and contemporary, Eastern and Western, Christian and Muslim. For example, despite her Christian background, Fairuz's conservatory training emphasized Quranic recitation, resulting in old-world techniques, intonation, pitches and pronunciations. Fairuz will often utilize Islamic imagery and Christian prayers in the same verse. Many of her songs are written in traditional modes, such as maqamat and muwashahat, poetic forms derived from Arab Spain. These influences give Fairuz a distinctly Arabic sound that is widely admired. However, Fairuz equally borrows from Western classical music, weaving in European instrumentation and dance rhythms. For example, her song "Ya Ana Ya Ana" sampled Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor. Also, many of her songs are on the shorter side, reminiscent of Western pop music, rather than the longer songs of Arabic music.

In a world where conflict is rampant, Fairuz's music is often associated with coexistence and solidarity. She came of age in the 1940s as Lebanon secured independence from France, an event that likely informed her personal ideals and artistic sensibilities. She famously refused to take sides during Lebanon's civil war from 1975-1990, instead performing only overseas and faithfully returning home to Lebanon after each performance. She also devoted an entire album, Jerusalem in My Heart to recognizing the struggle of Palestinians.

Fairuz has been described as a voice for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers who strive to balance their lives before and after crossing borders. In fact, the Arab American Institute recognizes Fairuz for her ability to reach people beyond borders: "Even if you were born and raised on the other side of the world this voice probably sang to you from LPs and tape decks in kitchens and living rooms." Although Fairuz sings about borders, nations and injustices, she also sings about drunken neighbors in the village, family dinners at the table and the scent of jasmine. The personal and the political are equally evocative. For many, she is a thread to what is loved, what was left and what is remembered. She also paves a path for what the future can look like if people from all walks of life learn to embrace one another.

In After the Last Border by Jessica Goudeau, a Syrian refugee named Hasna associates Fairuz's voice with home. For decades, Hasna lived in her cherished home, playing Fairuz's records while sipping morning coffee. Her voice was a companion. Parting with those records and the other commodities of her home affected Hasna deeply, but she was forced to leave behind everything she knew to escape war.

Photo of Fairuz in concert in Beiteddine, 2001 by Fletchergull

CrossingsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Alex Landragin

Summary

On the brink of the Nazi occupation of Paris, a German-Jewish bookbinder stumbles across a manuscript called Crossings. It has three narratives, each as unlikely as the next. And the narratives can be read one of two ways: either straight through or according to an alternate chapter sequence.

The first story in Crossings is a never-before-seen ghost story by the poet Charles Baudelaire, penned for an illiterate girl. Next is a noir romance about an exiled man, modeled on Walter Benjamin, whose recurring nightmares are cured when he falls in love with a storyteller who draws him into a dangerous intrigue of rare manuscripts, police corruption, and literary societies. Finally, there are the fantastical memoirs of a woman-turned-monarch whose singular life has spanned seven generations.

With each new chapter, the stunning connections between these seemingly disparate people grow clearer and more extraordinary. Crossings is an unforgettable adventure full of love, longing and empathy.

BookBrowse Review

Crossings is a beautiful, if slightly messy, time-bending debut. It reads like a vampire novel, sans vampires. It zigs and zags like a classic "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" book, but offers limited choices. The book is Francophile, while damning of French imperialism. It's compelling and confusing, interesting and sometimes extraneous. Never have I so thoroughly enjoyed a book while concurrently hoping the labyrinthine madness I was reading would come to an end.

The story begins, at least the way I read it, but more on that later, on a South Pacific Island. There are two friends, or lovers, we aren't sure, but they're definitely soulmates. On this island, the inhabitants can make "crossings" with each other; they can swap souls with another person by staring into their eyes for three to five minutes. However, there are rules about how it must be done. There are a limited number of crossings allowed per lifetime and a person must cross back into their own body.

And this is where the drama begins. As French colonialists land on the island in the late 1790s, a conflict ensues, and one of the soulmates, Koahu, is killed while in the middle of crossing with the would-be killer. The crossing is interrupted and incomplete. The other protagonist, Alula, witnesses this, and even though this soul is not supposed to cross again, it does so to pursue Koahu onto the French ship, as the other protagonist is now trapped in a French surgeon's body. It quickly becomes apparent that Koahu did indeed cross into the surgeon, but something went wrong. Shortly thereafter, the two souls are separated again. In sum, we have two protagonists – each a soul. Alula is aware of what has happened and in pursuit of her soul mate, while Koahu is completely oblivious.

That's the beginning. Fast-forward roughly 150 years and through 11 more bodies, and you finally get a resolution to this unique, well crafted lovers' quandary. This includes a return visit to the island and the addition of a third, vengeful soul that shakes things up along the way.

As if the plot were not complex enough, the book forces upon the reader an unexpected dilemma after the preface — a choice that will impact how the book is interpreted. Without spoiling too much, the reader must decide whether to read the book straight through — as three back-to-back novellas — or in a prescribed manner with chapters interspersed from all three novellas in a predetermined order chosen by the author. Presumably, these would be two very different reading experiences.

I chose the non-sequential path. I imagined it would be a more unique and interesting read. Approximately halfway through the book, I regretted my decision. Not knowing how many pages were left in the story, nor how far I had already read, made the undertaking a bit tortuous. I kept thinking the plot was wrapping up, only to suddenly be thrust backward 100 years to a new soul or character. This was often disorienting.

Yet, I couldn't put the book down. Landragin's prose is gorgeous. Crossings is written as an epic but succeeds where many lesser books have failed — it never gets buried under the weight of its own history. Intricate description and detail make it feel more like a documentary at times than a novel, particularly in its evocation of 1800s Paris, and the acute character focus helps move the plot forward.

The problem with body-hopping over the course of 200 years is that one ends up with a lot of "main" characters. Every time a protagonist crosses into a new character, s/he picks up their memories and personal histories as well, while maintaining the previously acquired memories of other bodies. Eventually, you have a main character with so many personalities, body traits, genders and memories, you cannot recall all of the previous people comprising the current one. Given the non-linear nature of the way I read it, I also had trouble remembering if the soul had already possessed a certain character yet.

Is this beautiful mess worth it?

Surely, Landragin's creativity and sheer tenacity in pulling off such a cunning plot device — albeit, a one-trick pony — and such impressive description is to be applauded. It's a beautiful and insanely detailed book, and the plot device is solid. If you enjoy mystical, history-spanning books that largely take place in France or in French colonies, you will probably love it. If you like epic storytelling, Crossings has this factor covered. If you're looking for a book with deeper meaning and takeaways beyond the theme of eternal love, it's probably best to pick something else.

Dreaming up and writing this novel was surely no small feat. Wading through it, non-linearly at least, was at times difficult as well. In my opinion, it was well worth the journey. A second reading following the linear perspective would surely bring the story into even more focus, but with so many good books to read, I question how many will find doing so worthwhile. Yet, this does mean the book leaves a lasting impression: I will always wonder how the story plays out differently when read the other way. Perhaps this in turn will make the book nearly immortal, like its characters, in my memory, as I ponder what might have been had I chosen differently.

Book reviewed by Ian Muehlenhaus

Beyond the Book:
Metempsychosis, Transmigration and Mesmerism

Drawing of a Mesmerism practitioner treating a womanCentral to Alex Landragin's debut novel Crossings is an idiosyncratic version of soul metempsychosis. Metempsychosis is the reincarnation of a soul from one biological body to another occurring after the first body's death. Reincarnation plays a prominent role in Hinduism and Buddhism. The European concept developed independently in ancient Greek philosophy, appearing in works by Plato and Pythagoras, and recurred in Western thought during the Enlightenment, when philosophers and writers returned to the concept but typically referred to it as transmigration. It appears in a variety of fiction throughout the 1800s, including in several pieces by Edgar Allen Poe, and in the 1900s in Ulysses by James Joyce. Nietzsche also made references to the concept in some of his work.

In Crossings, no one has to die for the transmigration between souls to take place. In a sense, the novel combines the concept of transmigration with spiritual, or perhaps supernatural, possession. It's this combination that leads to some very interesting story developments, as souls inherit the memories, feelings and intelligence capabilities of the bodies they migrate into, while retaining the memories of those they have left behind. At least, this is true when the transmigration is completely successful. The fact that no one has to die means that characters can evolve in unique ways, absorbing the complexity of up to six other souls at once.

But without a required death — as is typical in transmigration — how does a soul trick another soul into a body swap? Landragin adds an additional twist from the metaphysical playbook, mesmerization. This concept has its roots in health quackery from the late 1700s.

Franz Anton Mesmer was an Austrian physician who believed that most illnesses were caused by magnetic fluid imbalances within the body — a belief he called "animal magnetism." Mesmer devised a way to help cure animal magnetism imbalance, which he thought was the cause of many health problems. He would create medications full of iron and make patients ingest them. Then, holding magnets, he would roll his hands all over a patient's body, supposedly realigning the fluids magnetically so that the person would feel better. His patients would typically go into a trance-like state, thus the etymology of the term "mesmerize."

Mesmer got a little cocky, though. Eventually, he eschewed magnets from his practice altogether. He argued that he himself had magnetic powers in his hands. In the end, he was merely moving his hands over patients' bodies to "heal" them. His eccentric remedies continued to evolve, and he was thrown out of the University of Vienna for being a charlatan, banned from practicing medicine in Vienna, and later resettled in Paris where France's King Louis XVI launched an investigation into his practices. The commission investigating was chaired by none other than Benjamin Franklin. They renounced Mesmer's treatments and animal magnetism altogether.

Yet, the concept of mesmerization therapy had already become a movement all its own, continuing after Mesmer died in 1815. It was brought to America by several French immigrants and maintained popularity in the United States for several decades after it was disavowed in Europe. Developed later in the 19th century, the psychological practice of hypnotism has its roots in Mesmer's work. Though the process of hypnotism is somewhat different from mesmerization and has proven to be an effective form of treatment for some psychological conditions, in both cases the patient is placed in a trance-like state.

Though mesmerization in Crossings does not require ingesting iron supplements or magnets, it does require staring into a person's eyes for up to five minutes – similar to how hypnotism may be practiced. By staring into another body's eyes, the main souls of this book are able to inhabit the other body through a tingling power of suggestion. Hypnotism and mesmerization both emerged during the time frame in which the novel is set, so it is fitting to see both methods used to induce Landragin's original concept of a living transmigration.

Practitioner of Mesmerism, courtesy of Wellcome Collection

PewClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Catherine Lacey

Summary

In a small unnamed town in the American South, a church congregation arrives to a service and finds a figure asleep on a pew. The person is genderless, racially ambiguous, and refuses to speak. One family takes the strange visitor in and nicknames them Pew.

As the town spends the week preparing for a mysterious Forgiveness Festival, Pew is shuttled from one household to the next. The earnest and seemingly well-meaning townspeople see conflicting identities in Pew, and many confess their fears and secrets to them in one-sided conversations. Pew listens and observes while experiencing brief flashes of past lives or clues about their origins. As days pass, the void around Pew's presence begins to unnerve the community, whose generosity erodes into menace and suspicion. Yet by the time Pew's story reaches a shattering and unsettling climax at the Forgiveness Festival, the secret of their true nature―as a devil or an angel or something else entirely―is dwarfed by even larger truths.

Pew, Catherine Lacey's third novel, is a foreboding, provocative, and amorphous fable about the world today: its contradictions, its flimsy morality, and the limits of judging others based on their appearance. With precision and restraint, one of our most beloved and boundary-pushing writers holds up a mirror to her characters' true selves, revealing something about forgiveness, perception, and the faulty tools society uses to categorize human complexity.

BookBrowse Review

A quote often attributed to Leo Tolstoy states that "All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." In her fourth work of fiction, a spare parable with a Southern Gothic ambiance, Catherine Lacey takes the latter story line to an extreme, using her protagonist as a symbol of everything that a community fears and dismisses as foreign.

Pew's narrator, who appears to be homeless, amnesiac and disinclined to speak, sleeps anywhere safe and enclosed: in the woods, behind a gas station or in a church. One Sunday morning, the narrator wakes up on a pew (see Beyond the Book) beside the Bonner family in the middle of a church service, observing everything like an alien anthropologist:

I was one of the things here: a hymnal, a Bible, an offering envelope, a tiny pencil. A person draped in heavy cloth stood at the front … and said things in such a way to make those words seem obvious and true.

Hilda and Steven Bonner invite their seatmate out to lunch and to stay at their home with their three boys. The Reverend suggests the name "Pew" for the stranger, whose gender, race and age are unclear. He presses Pew for information, especially about their gender, saying, "you have to be one or the other … some people these days like to think a person gets to decide whether they are a boy or a girl, but we believe, our church believes and Jesus believed that God decides if you're a boy or a girl." Hilda arranges for a medical checkup at the hospital, insisting that it's out of concern for Pew's health—though it's also a way of determining their gender, getting a clue of their age and ensuring they've brought no contagion to the town. In any case, the attempt is futile; Pew refuses to change into a paper gown for the exam.

Over the five days leading up to Saturday's "Forgiveness Festival," Pew is passed between various community members who "babysit" them and attempt to elicit their story. These people give long monologues, filling up the silence by projecting their own views. Mrs. Gladstone, Hilda's stepmother, recounts her husband's horrific deathbed confessions about the violence he visited on local black people; Roger, a Quaker, leads art therapy projects; Sonny, the children's pastor, talks about suffering in the hope of drawing out Pew's trauma.

It's only to those who demand nothing—to Nelson, a refugee adopted by a local family; to Tammy, a careworn woman who keeps birds—that Pew says a few words. But when it comes to speaking up in their own defense to placate the Reverend and the Bonners, or to allay suspicions, Pew is unresponsive. Through every interrogation, they maintain their silence. Pew is perhaps less a well-rounded creation than a symbol of coming judgment (even hailed by an old woman as "our new jesus") or an embodiment of the community's fears. This character represents a threat to comfort, certainty and hegemony.

The drama over deciphering Pew's identity plays out against the preparations for the enigmatic festival and increasing unrest over disappearances in the area. On the Thursday before the festival, Pew is moved to "the black side of town" to stay with a different Reverend and his family—in hopes that the brown-skinned stranger may be more comfortable there and thus more willing to open up—and we hear the first hints that these missing-person cases may be racially motivated. Hilda and Steven have described the festival to Pew as a mass confession of sins, with blindfolds and curtains used to preserve people's anonymity. But it turns out there is a darker aspect to it that they have chosen not to explain.

Some readers may find this short novel's vagueness off-putting and its moral ambiguity disturbing. Lacey keeps Pew's background shadowy, though occasional freeze-frame imagery suggests imprisonment and abandonment. The author also stops short of apportioning either blame or approval. All of the characters are flawed and have their own agendas, but that feels true to life: no one is wholly good or makes all the right choices. I found the book troubling but strangely compelling at the same time; I raced through it in hope of answers. The fact that I didn't find many, or perhaps any (how ironic that Lacey's second novel is entitled The Answers!), left me unsettled, but meant that I won't forget Pew any time soon. I particularly recommend it to fans of Shirley Jackson and Flannery O'Connor.

Book reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Beyond the Book:
The History of Church Pews

Illustration of church pews, 1842 In Catherine Lacey's novel Pew, the title character is given their name because they are found sleeping on a church pew. The word "pew" is thought to come from the Dutch "puye," meaning the enclosed front area of a building such as a town hall, where important proclamations were made. "Puye," in turn, may come from the Latin word "podium." Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755, defined a pew as "a seat enclosed in a church."

Wooden pews as we know them today first became widespread in Europe in the 1500s following the Protestant Reformation. Before that, church floors were usually kept bare because the congregation stood during services. Some churches kept moveable, backless stone benches around the walls for the elderly to sit on. Eventually, these started to be fixed to the floor, and stone was replaced with wood. Some of the oldest pews still standing are from the early 1600s.

Pews made it possible for parishioners to sit during the lengthy sermons typical of Protestant services. Catholic churches later followed the Protestant lead to an extent, introducing pews and allowing people to sit for parts of the Mass. Although church services had previously been more interactive, this new format, with pews set up in rows facing the pulpit, was arguably more inclusive of churchgoers, acknowledging the importance of their presence as listeners.

Pews came to be seen as tokens of social status across denominations: The wealthy sat near the front, while the poor sat further back. Before the mid-19th century, it was common for churches to sell or rent pews. Powerful families purchased box pews and considered them their personal property, to be handed down in wills. Free pews were often available at the back for the poor and for church visitors. Churches in the United States also employed "slave galleries," or rooms in the back of the church for keeping enslaved people separated from the rest of the congregation.

Starting in the 1840s, pew rental became contentious in the Anglican church. Citing ethical concerns, many Anglican churches outlawed the policy by the 1870s and instituted open seating instead. Some pew rental still continued into the 20th century, particularly in Catholic and Presbyterian churches in the United States, which relied on the practice for income, but it was mostly phased out by the late 1940s.

Nowadays, some churches are replacing their pews with chairs so that they have more flexible spaces. For instance, last year Bath Abbey sold off its Victorian pews in favor of lightweight, stackable chairs that can be moved to prepare for community events such as concerts and exhibits. Although it's a common move for English churches, it's a controversial one, with many claiming that it spoils the architectural integrity of such historic buildings.

Illustration of church pews from Milford Malvoisin, or Pews and Pewholders (1842) by Francis Edward Paget

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