Eleanor Catton is now much more famous for her Booker winning The Luminaries, than this, her first novel. But I chose to start with this one because its a debut, and simply for the pragmatic reason that the Booker one is over 800 pages long so that will have to wait for another time.
This debut was showered with plaudits when it was published – ‘a starburst of talent, a mesermising labyrinthe, intricately patterned, alarmingly good’ and so on. Catton herself has taken aim at certain critics who she thinks are discriminating against her on the basis of age and gender (in reviewing The Luminaries), so I want to stay away from that argument completely and just look at this book on its merits.
There are two striking things about it to me – one is how it plays with the form of the novel, and the other is how acutely it maps the internal workings of teenagers as they come of age.
Given what I’ve read about The Luminaries, with its astrological motif and ever decreasingly small chapters, and the way this book is written, it seems Catton is stamping herself, whether she wants it or not, as a writer who fiddles with the form of the novel.
In The Rehearsal, she’s playing with the dividing line between fact and fiction. The story starts with the scandal at a girls school. A music teacher has had a sexual affair with one of the students. The story plays out through the eyes of others close to Victoria, the girl in question, most closely her sister Isolde but also via her manipulative, vicious saxophone teacher. Running in parallel is the story of a nearby drama school, told mainly through the eyes of Stanley, one of its students. The drama students decide to stage an end of year play based on the scandal and the story becomes increasingly a mix of fact and fiction. As it progresses, lights come up on scenes and it becomes more and more difficult to sort the real from the theatrical world.
Catton has managed to pull of this tricksy structure with real skill, but this kind of mashing with form isn’t usually the sort of thing I like to read, thought I did enjoy Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. But if you are going to bend the form of the novel, you need to be sure it doesn’t swamp the writing itself and in this case, it doesn’t. Catton writing is up to the task of carrying the story on its own and there are some real stretches of brilliance, such as this outburst from Isolde about the scandal her sister has created:
‘Because they want to quarantine,’ Isolde shouted. ‘They want to keep us all in one place so the sickness doesn’t spread and they can figure out a vaccine. They want to put us in a concrete yard and take our clothes off and hose us down and scrub us with sandpaper and turpentine and rags made from old Y-fronts that have turned grey. Its like you’ve left big inky handprints on all of us, everyone you’ve ever met, but especially me, I’m the most inky, I’m dripping in ink, it’s running down my legs and arms and off my fingertips and pooling wider and wider on the floor.’
Apart from being a great piece of prose, this also captures the reaction of adults to a sex scandal such as this, and there are equally good reflections from other girls, which essentially show they are not so much traumatised by the event, but angry to have been excluded from the salacious details of it. This piercing insight into the mind of teenagers is the strongest point of the book as far as I’m concerned.
Its weakness is that we the reader aren’t really forced to think about ourselves or learn something new, because so many of the actions of adults and what they say seems caught in the fictional world of theatre, rather than the real world of the school girls. The melding of fact and fiction also allows Catton to create some grotesque adult characters, particularly the saxophone teacher and the teachers at the drama school, that have little grounding in reality. That also allows her to give these characters preposterous speeches that really belong on the stage. But as British novelist Zadie Smith has been quoted as saying to a skeptic of her debut ‘White Teeth’, fiction owes nothing to reality. Is this true? Does fiction work when the characters become caricatures and say and do things that are beyond the bounds of possibility? I think it does, but not so well in a novel that is trying to be realist. That leads me to conclude this story is more about blurring fact and fiction than about representing the real world. The clue is in the title. The Rehearsal is a rehearsal for life, which is what the school girls are doing.
If you like form-bending novels that cause you to lose track of what is going on, you’ll love this book. But its also just great writing as well. But in my opinion its not a book that delivers on any big messages that makes the reader question the essence of what it is to live.