by Eleanor Catton
A Debut Worth Noting
A review by Jill Owens
When I was looking for plane reading over the last month, The Rehearsal, a debut novel by New Zealander Eleanor Catton, caught my eye. (Well, actually, what caught my eye were the extremely flattering blurbs on the back by Joshua Ferris and Kate Atkinson, two authors I love, and the fact that it's published by Reagan Arthur Books, an imprint I trust.) This is not, in any way, the best book for typical plane reading. It's a hyper-intelligent, occasionally mindbending, Russian doll of a novel -- plots nest within plays within fantasies within philosophy. But The Rehearsal is also page-turning enough that I couldn't put it down, through thunderstorms, turbulence, and one plane actually diverting to another airport.
The Rehearsal ostensibly has two story lines: Mr. Saladin, a saxophone teacher at an all-girls school called Abbey Grange, has had an affair with his underage student, Victoria. The fallout from this scandal includes several students beginning to take saxophone lessons from another teacher (who is a focal point of the book, though never named). The most notable of these students are Isolde (Victoria's sister) and Julia, who are struggling with and fantasizing about their own budding sexuality. The second story line takes place at the Institute, an exclusive acting school, where the students have decided to use the story of the affair at Abbey Grange for their year-end play, with no degree of pseudonymity. These stories are not that descriptive of what the novel is about, though -- the reader never gets either Victoria or Mr. Saladin's perspective on the affair, for example. The affair is more an occasion, or a space-time event, creating a kind of negative and mysterious space around which Catton weaves questions about the nature of reality, identity, and art.
Catton's writing is extraordinary in both its psychological acuity and its metaphorical grace. She switches fluidly from the morass of anxieties, cruelties, and joys of teenage girlhood to the depths of art and performance (and articulates the layered connections between those two subjects). She employs a technique, more often used in poetry than prose, of reusing images, phrases, and bits of dialogue over and over throughout the book, accruing more and different meanings each time they occur. The Rehearsal is also, unexpectedly, quite funny at moments, particularly in its conversations. Catton excels at dialogue that is not realistic, in the usual sense of the word, but purposefully and carefully designed, similar to some of Don DeLillo's work.
The Rehearsal is a difficult novel to try and describe, but it is unlike any reading experience I've had in recent memory. It's a dark, beautiful, and bizarre maze of a book, and the young Eleanor Catton is a prodigious talent.