Pet is a novel narrated by protagonist Justine from two timelines: as an adult daughter visiting her dementia-addled father in an Auckland rest home, and as a 12-year-old schoolgirl in 1980s Wellington.
Adult Justine is discomfited to meet a carer who bears an uncanny resemblance to a person from her past whilst young Justine is grieving the loss of her mother and navigating her last year before High School.
Back in the ‘80s, Justine is a bright student, best friend to Amy, trying to look after her father whilst he drinks his way through his grief. Her teacher is the glamorous Mrs Price who has mesmerised pupils, colleagues and parents with her sports car, shiny blonde hair and way of making everyone feel special.
Justine’s classmates are desperate to be the ones to loiter after school, cleaning board rubbers and closing windows for Mrs Price whose allure is only deepened by rumours of her tragic past. It’s no wonder that motherless Justine is bedazzled.
Behind the glamour lies manipulation and confusion and things start to go wrong in Mrs Price’s classroom. Justine is a person with epilepsy, her seizures are sometimes brought on by stress which results in amnesia and this sets up her as an unreliable narrator: are the things that Justine suspects really happening? Who is the manipulator?
The dog-eat-dog world of playgrounds and classrooms plays out beautifully, the cruelty of children vying for their place in the social order only too accurate. It’s the ‘80s when teachers could get much more familiar with their students and Mrs Price’s attention to her pets lends an uneasy and often chilling aspect to the story.
Pet is a page-turning psychological thriller: tense, uncomfortable and completely gripping. The two-time winner of the Jan Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction has produced another cracker of a novel and I am officially a fan.