Hot on the tail feathers of the award-winning The Axeman's Carnival comes a new book from Catherine Chidgey: Pet.
Chidgey opened proceedings with an apology. Tama Magpie would not be making an appearance due to 'falling in with a bad crowd' last night; namely the seagull colony across the road in Armagh Street. Lol.
The Axeman's Carnival earned Chidgey her second Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction - the first being for The Wish Child. How do awards and fellowships affect her work? Chidgey says it's thrilling - it's one thing to be satisfied with her writing but lovely to have outside recognition - and $64,000! She warns not to get caught up in needing recognition, adding that most writers, being introverts, need a thick skin. It is a dichotomy to be an introvert and then have to promote a winning book.
Was Chidgey always a writer? She spent a lot of time home sick from school - back then there was no internet, and only a couple of TV channels (Love Boat, anyone?) so she read, and wrote to entertain herself. When in Berlin in her twenties, Chidgey felt it was less risky to release her work to critical eyes than at home, and began to develop that thick skin, adding some writers don't continue to publish after a bad review.
The Axeman's Carnival had been in her back pocket since 2008 (Chidgey collects titles like a magpie) when she saw a photo in exhibition in Northland. Her husband has links to Tuatapere in Southland, which gave her the setting. The seeds of a story of male power and violence were sown, but she wanted a triangular relationship. Enter Tama the magpie.
Choosing a magpie as narrator gave the story a witness to Rob and Marnie's crumbling marriage, says Chidgey: 'one who could say bad words and get away with it' - she liked the idea of an animal as witness to the human world. Rob doesn't believe he's sentient and doesn't rein in his behaviour until the arrival of 'the eye' - the internet camera streaming Tama when he goes viral on Twitter - when it was called Twitter.
Chidgey reads from the book: Tama is the comic relief in a dark story, 'the stone in Rob's shoe' winding him up 'like the kid in the playground who won't shut up' taunting Rob with his mimicry:
I'm gonna take you down, motherfucker! You have the right to remain silent...
(Takes off out the cat door with a miaow! His superman cape flaring out behind him)...
There was a gap between this book and her last, says Chidgey - from 2003-16 she was going through the IVF programme, eventually having her daughter Alice through surrogacy. This informed her writing in The Wish Child, to Tama's role as a surrogate child for Marnie.
The arrival of Pet marks a Chidgey renaissance, according to Rachael King.
Pet transports the reader back to the 1980s, when Lorraine Downes won Miss Universe, narrator Justine was twelve - and all her classmates wanted to be her teacher's pet. Justine, vulnerable, grieving the loss of her mother, gravitates to her glamorous, blonde teacher, Mrs Price. She appears to fill the gap, and is the role model all the body-conscious girls aspire to. And it's not just the children who are drawn to her.
When it's Justine's turn to be the pet, she's distanced from best friend Amy, leaving her open to bullying and racism. Mrs Price appears to turn a blind eye. Comments are made by one of the nuns that its' not necessarily a good thing to be the teacher's pet - but all are helplessly in Mrs Price's thrall - students and adults alike.
As things begin to go missing at school, the teacher encourages the class to name a suspect - Justine's best friend. I began to get a really bad feeling when Justine's classmates tell Amy to kill herself - and are unchecked. Then Mrs Price begins to inveigle her way into her lonely father's heart...
Chidgey's penchant for the macabre underlies the text. From the beginning there's a suggestion that something's not quite right about Mrs Price. She's manipulative and plays favourites. Adult Justine hints at the 'thing that happened with Mrs Price' who forces the class to watch a movie on torture. Then there's the revolting incident with the axolotl!
Justine is an unreliable narrator. As well as being twelve, she lives with epilepsy, leaving a blank either side of an episode. Readers are left to puzzle over culpability when something awful happens on the cliffs...
In a genius move, Chidgey uses an invisible UV marker pen to create a dialogue between Justine and her dead mother - who found a voice through her illness, writing a legacy on everything - from the pictures on the wall to her wardrobe.
Chidgey read the bit about the 'nit nurse' and the film about periods. It is very funny, a bit like Derry Girls: the boys are peeking in through the empty window (the curtains have been stolen), which is covered with a holey alter cloth (emblazoned with holy, holy holy), and the girls don't trust the information: my sister says it hurts!
Liz Grant asks the prolific Chidgey what's next? Chidgey has a new book almost ready for release in February 2024: The Guilt. Set in the New Forest (U.K), it's about three boys who begin to understand who they are when the community vehemently resists their release when their boys' home is shut down by the government. In a play on Vonnegut, their carers are Mother Morning, Mother Day and Mother Night.