The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton

NZ cover -- Review copy courtesy WordFest

Both The Rehearsal and its youthful author, Eleanor Catton, represent a phenomenon that I predict we are going to see even more of in the near future: a young writer who has roots in no particular country (but experiences from a number) and who focuses her or his fiction on some universals that can take place anywhere. Catton was 20 and a student at New Zealand’s Victoria University when she started writing this novel. Born in Canada, she was raised in New Zealand — the year after its publication there in 2008, she headed off to take her M.A. at the well-respected Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The Rehearsal has followed a similar kind of global voyage in the book prize world. It won the 2009 New Zealand first novel award. Last spring, following publication in the United Kingdom, it was longlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize. And last week it was shortlisted for Canada’s Amazon.ca First Novel Award. Ironically, on that list it joins Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, another author/book combination with a similar travelling history (in that case, a Filipino author now living in Canada — and a book that won the 2008 Man Asian Literature Prize). If you are looking for other examples of the phenomenon I mentioned, consider Junot Diaz in the fiction world and Naomi Klein on the non-fiction side.

So it is not surprising that The Rehearsal could be set anywhere. Its central theme is a coming-of-age story centred on not one, but a number, of mid-teens, all affected by a scandal that also could have (and has) taken place anywhere: an affair between a teacher and a student who has not yet reached the age of majority. That theme, incidentally, is not about the affair itself but rather the waves that it has produced in the community where it took place.

Canadian cover -- I prefer the NZ version

Given that storyline and the youth of the author, perhaps the most impressive aspect of this first novel is the intricate structure which Catton has used to frame this book. While the affair is always present in the book, its implications are explored in alternating chapters from two very different points of view — one “real”, one “fictional” — which increasingly overlap and co-mingle as the novel moves on.

The “real” storyline is told from the point of view of a saxophone teacher (never named) who has on her student list a number of young women who were classmates of Victoria, the student in the affair — one of them is her younger sister, Isolde, who will eventually become the most central character in this part of the story. But from the start, Catton lets us know that the saxophone teacher also extends this aspect of the story into a fantasy world that is every bit as concrete in her mind. When the book opens, she is conversing with a mother, a Mrs. Henderson, who wants her daughter to move up from clarinet to saxophone:

That was at four. At five there is another knock. The saxophone teacher opens the door.

“Mrs Winter,” she says. “You’ve come about your daughter. Come in and we’ll discuss carving her into half-hour slices to feed me week by week.”

She holds the door wide so Mrs Winter can settle in. It’s the same woman as before, just with a different costume — Winter not Henderson. Some other things are different too, because the woman is a professional and she has thought about the role for a long time. Mrs Winter smiles with only half her mouth, for example. Mrs Winter keeps nodding a few seconds too long. Mrs Winter inhales quietly through her teeth when she is thinking.

They both politely pretend not to notice that it is the same woman as before.

The saxophone teacher does not just imagine this role-playing with the mothers, she does it with her students. She imagines the dull and lumpish Bridget as wanting to play Victoria’s sister because that is a bigger role. And Isolde wanting to play Julia, the maybe-lesbian, a character that would simply be too complex for her.

If that stream of the story imagines a drama imposed on reality, the setting of the alternating thread is a drama school, the Institute, where the acting world increasingly acquires aspects of reality. The central character here is another teenager, Stanley, who aspires (successfully) to be one of the 20 accepted from hundreds of applications and auditions to study at the Institute.

“The first term,” they said, “is essentially a physical and emotional undoing. You will unlearn everything you have ever learned, peeling it off skin by skin, stripping down and down until your impulse shines through.”

“This Institute,” they said, “cannot teach you how to be an actor. We cannot give you a map or a recipe or an alphabet that will teach you how to act of how to feel. What we do at this Institute is not teaching by accumulation, collecting skills as one might collect a marble or a token or a charm. Here at this Institute we teach by elimination. We help you learn to eliminate yourself.”

“You may break or be broken,” they said. “This happens.”

Just as the dramatic aspects of the saxophone teacher’s view of her reality come to dominate that stream, a version of real events comes to loom larger in this “acting” thread of the story. The concluding — and most important — element for the first-year class is a production written, designed and performed by the class itself. They choose to do a dramatization of the affair between teacher and student, which in the community where the novel is set has become a centrepiece of conversation and rumor, again producing a mixture of what really did happen and what rumor says happened. The latter, of course, has become more accepted as fact than the former.

For this reader, the strongest aspect of The Rehearsal was the painstaking way that Catton developed the merging of these two different worlds, one based on real events in the day-to-day world, the other a dramatized version that becomes increasingly real. We all impose imagination on completing the details of our picture of what really happened in any given situation — in this book the entire cast does the same thing. The notion of “rehearsal” and “cast” are very much present in both threads of the story. And by the time the novel comes to a close, both threads have roughly equal portions of fact and imagination.

It is a significant achievement, as the novel’s success in prize competitions shows. I will admit, however, that for me the appreciation of what the author was achieving came to attract more attention than the story itself. Indeed, I am reflecting that in this review by concentrating more on structure and technique than on the characters themselves. Isolde, Julia and Stanley certainly have more depth to them as characters than this review reflects and I am sure other readers will find that. It may be a reflection of my own age and experience as a writer that the author’s finesse became more impressive than the novel itself.

Despite that caveat, this is an exceptional first book. Catton has also had New Zealand success with some of her short stories. Given the reputation and record of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — and the fact that all this published work preceded her attendance there and she is still in her mid-twenties — she is certainly an author to be watching in the future, as well as being appreciated now.

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9 Responses to “The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton”

  1. Zoe Says:

    I haven’t read this yet, but I actually have a different cover! Which I really like.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Zoe: Ah, the US version. You can check out the UK, Dutch, Norweigian and German versions here:

    http://eleanorcatton.blogspot.com/2010/03/orange-prize-2010.html

    So the covers have every bit as much a “wandering” history as the book itself.

  3. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    I really like the sound of this one. I enjoyed your description of the technique and the way the author creates an interplay between fact and imagination. While the (ostensible) subject matter may not have grabbed me, your praise of the writerly technique has. This is the sort of book I wish they included in the Tournament of Books.

    I am making note of it. (But first, I have to whittle down some on my shelves.)

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I’m not sure how old your daughter is exactly, but I think that would add another dimension of interest for you. As the first quote in the review indicates, there are parents in the story (in both threads). And given Catton’s youth, the view of them comes more from the adolescent’s perspective than a “normal” adult one. I didn’t want to cast this as an adolescent novel (because I found that interplay you mention more interesting) but that aspect is certainly present and may land with a parent more than it did with me. Certainly, for me The Rehearsal seemed better than a couple of somewhat similar novels that you have reviewed from the ToB list.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve seen so many mixed reviews of this book, I’ve tended to think it’s probably not for me. But your review has piqued my interest. It sounds like an accomplished piece of work. If she’s so ambitious with structure and technique now, imagine what she’ll be like with another book or two under her belt.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I don’t think the book is totally successful — the story line is a bit thin (unless you happen to be under 25 — or a parent of an adolescent) and not all of Catton’s stylistic ventures work. On the other hand, I am inclined to give first novelists some slack and I did find the techniques she used to draw the two story lines together worked more often than not. Given that you are a writer/editor as I am, I suspect you would find that aspect of it interesting. How many times as a reporter when you were interviewing someone did you wonder just how much imagination the subject was using to fill in the gaps of what they were saying? There’s a lot of that on both sides here.

  7. Ruth Seeley Says:

    Have to say I really loved – and was excited by – this one. Have my reading habits been totally warped by that Raymond Quesnel Exercises en Style in which the same (not very interesting) story is told 99 different ways? Perhaps. But just as I found it exciting when first John Hawkes and then John Irving ‘rewrote’ Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, I’m excited by an author like Catton who can reuse her own material within a single novel (much as Lionel Shriver reuses and repurposes events in The Post-Birthday World). And for someone so young to be doing this – well – I’m drooling in anticipation of her next book.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Ruth: Your comment relates to Kimbofo’s preceding one. I think readers who find the novel wanting approach it too much from the point of view of the “story” that is being told (the cover blurb on my NZ version certainly points in that direction — wrongly, I would argue). It is the way that she shows how different people looking at the same lump of coal will come up with very different (arguably, all equally accurate) descriptions. And I certainly agree that this is exceptional writing talent from an author so young.

  9. Tom C Says:

    This is not something which would immediately appeal to me, but obiously you found its qualities, and is perhaps a reminder to me to move away from familiar ground and to venture into pastures new.

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