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Eleanor Catton: Rehearsal

Though a debut novel, this is a very accomplished work and shows the sort of skill we might expect in a writer of much greater experience. It takes two stories which, we know, are going to somehow merge later on in the book, though it is not immediately clear how this is going to happen. However, where a less experienced writer might well drive the two stories on, Catton has the skill to embellish the main stories. The first story concerns a jazz band at a girls’ school. Mr. Saladin, who runs the orchestra, has been accused of having a sexual relationship with one of the girls, Victoria. He is immediately dismissed. Much of the story starts after this event. Catton cleverly gives us several points of view. Firstly, there is Victoria’s family, in particular her younger sister, Isolde. Isolde is two years younger than Victoria and always feels that she is trailing in the wake of Victoria. Their parents are generally supportive but somewhat distant, probably unsure of how to deal with it. The school organises a counselling session with an earnest, well-meaning counsellor whom Catton mildly mocks. Isolde is obliged to join the session with the girls from the band and Victoria’s class and bitterly resents it, clearly feeling out of place with the older girls and hating being pitied by them.

Catton could have left it there but she adds two clever touches. The book actually starts off with the saxophone teacher. Isolde and some other girls learn the saxophone with her. She acts as a Greek chorus, hearing the girls telling their stories about the affair but commenting in her own sarcastic way on it as well as listening to the mothers and, at times, challenging them. Indeed, it is through the teacher and her discussions with the girls that we learn much about the affair and what people think of it. There is more to her. Like any teacher, she has her likes and dislikes but she is not afraid of hiding them. She does not like Bridget and she makes her dislike clear. But we also learn from Julia at the counselling sessions. Julia is one of the band but she is something of a loner. Indeed, some of the other girls suspect that she might be a Lesbian, though, initially, there is no evidence either way of her sexuality. However, she does take something of a contrarian view. The counsellor explains Mr. Saladin’s behaviour as wanting to control Victoria. Julia disagrees.

Gaining control isn’t the exciting part. Sleeping with a minor isn’t exciting because you get to boss them around. It’s exciting because you’re risking so much. And taking a risk is exciting because of the possibility that you might lose, not the possibility that you might win.

The counsellor clearly had not thought of this and is inclined to reject it but Julia will not let him get away with it. She will later raise other issues to challenge the counsellor.

The second story involves Stanley. Stanley is a very conventional young man. He is an only child. His father is a psychologist who is inclined to tell politically incorrect jokes, often about pedophilia, which very much embarrasses Stanley. Stanley, to the surprise of his father, has decided to audition at the Drama Institute, a prestigious theatrical group, which gets many applications but only takes twenty a year. We follow the not entirely conventional approach of the theatrical group with the staff – known only by their titles (e.g. Head of Acting) – not using standard audition techniques but their own idiosyncratic methods. Their method seems to be to get the actors to reveal their innermost feelings and show not only us and their peers but themselves who they really are and what they really think. Inevitably, this group will take on the other story in their acting.

This is only a glimpse of what happens in this very complex novel, with a variety of sub-plots. Catton is also dealing with a range of themes. Clearly, performance is one, both the performance of actors (i.e a conscious performance) as well as the performance of ordinary human beings in their everyday lives, often unaware of the fact that they are giving a performance. However, it is also imagined performance. Indeed the last lines of the book are I’d be happy if you told me just enough of the facts so I could imagine it. So I could re-create it for myself. So I could imagine that I was really there.. Sexuality, power, the role of gossip, parenting, relationships and other themes are all subject to Catton’s scrutiny and often in an original way. As I said at the beginning, this really is a superbly well-written and original novel which deserves to better known.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Viking, Auckland