The Rehearsal is the debut novel by Eleanor Catton, the author of The Luminaries, which I very much enjoyed, and which won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. Despite the praise which her second novel has had, relatively few readers in comparison seem to have come across The Rehearsal. I was so looking forward to reading Catton’s debut, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and was written as her MFA thesis when she was just twenty two years old. The Sunday Times recognises that Catton is ‘a starburst of talent and the arrival of an author wholly different from anyone else writing today’. The Guardian calls the novel ‘astonishing… [it] has the glitter and mystery of a true literary original… the prose is so arresting, the storytelling so seductive, that wherever the book falls open it’s near impossible to put down.’
The Rehearsal follows the experiences of several adolescents when a sex scandal rocks their school, and later, when a group of drama school students decide to dramatise it, the wider community. ‘The sudden publicity [of the scandal],’ says the novel’s blurb, ‘seems to turn every act into a performance and every space into a stage… the real world and the world of the theatre are forced to meet, and soon the boundaries between private and public begin to dissolve…’.
Isolde, the younger sister of the girl who enters into a relationship with her schoolteacher, tells her saxophone teacher: ‘Dad says it would probably be years and years before Mr Saladin gets properly convicted and goes to jail… All the papers will say child abuse, but there won’t be a child any more, she’ll be an adult by then, just like him. It’ll be like someone destroyed the scene of the crime on purpose, and built something clean and shiny in its place.’ Isolde is focused upon throughout, as is a drama student named Stanley, and a girl named Julia, who has lessons with the same saxophone teacher as Isolde.
Isolde’s sister, Victoria, flits in and out of the narrative and its dialogue; she is the central focus of the novel, due to her actions and their repercussions, and the way in which these draw certain characters together, but she is never a protagonist in terms of the space devoted to her in the novel. Isolde wonders about her sister’s choices, musing about them, but knowing she will never be able to directly confront Victoria. Catton writes: ‘She could not ask, Why didn’t you tell me? when Victoria snared her first lover, began her first affair, broke her first promise, or shed, for the first time, tiny blossom-drops of virgin blood, for all those slender landmarks are part of a terrain in which the younger sister does not yet belong.’ There is a rawness to Catton’s characters throughout, and the ways in which they interact. They are, without exception, complex, and feel ultimately realistic, even when we only know them by their job titles, or when they exist only on the periphery.
The Rehearsal has been written in an extremely clever way; it becomes difficult, almost from the very beginning, to know if the characters are those affected directly by the scandal, or whether they are mirrors, actors rendering their actions into play-form. They go by the same names, and there is no marked distinction between the two. This sounds confusing, but actually, it serves to make the novel all the more absorbing. The Rehearsal bounces back and forth in time, and Catton so cleverly blends what is real, what is acted, and what is imagined together.
There is a real freshness and sharpness to the dialogue here; nothing said is ever cliched, or sentimental. Conversational exchanges have a complexity to them, and they often startle. At the drama institute, for instance, a former pupil tells the new intake: ‘Everything you’ve ever slammed shut gets reopened here… If none of you had auditioned and been accepted you would all have become cemented, cast in plaster and moulded for the rest of your adult life. That’s what’s happening to everybody else, out there. In here you never congeal. You never set or crust over. Every possibility is kept open – it must be kept open. You learn to hold all those possibilities in your fist and never let any of them go.’
Taut and impressive, The Rehearsal is certainly a novel to admire. I enjoyed it even more than The Luminaries, which is a literary tour de force I doubt I will ever forget. The Rehearsal is perceptive, searching, and understanding; it is incredibly compelling, and there is so much here for one to invest in. Catton’s prose is beautiful and has such depth to it. The Rehearsal does not read like a debut novel; rather, it feels incredibly polished and accomplished. Catton’s voice is highly distinctive; never does it falter. This novel is a masterful one, which I found entirely absorbing.