Lorna Bradbury admires a quirky first novel, The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
Published in The Daily Telegraph, 24 Jul 2009
Eleanor Catton’s intricately crafted first novel dramatises the fallout of an affair between a music teacher and a teenage girl, and the way in which this takes on a life of its own when it is seized on as the subject of a production at a local drama school.
It treads some of the same ground as Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. But where the interest of Heller’s novel lay in the manipulative brilliance of its first-person narrative, that of the teacher Barbara Covett, Catton’s novel is driven by an examination of the nature of performance – where the boundaries between pretence and truth or fantasy and reality break down – and a questioning of what the novel might do. The alternating narratives, complex time lines, highly stylised dialogue and the framing of scenes within stage directions all contribute to a distinctly odd reading experience. We are asked to consider how the events of the novel add up – who is it who told what to whom – and what it is that is really happening: “the kernel of truth behind everything”.
The novel charts potent territory: how adolescence is saturated with sexual tension, so that the world is coloured by possibilities and anxieties; how teenagers hide behind the idea of being damaged as a way of seeming interesting; how teachers often function as therapists in that they seem to be available for advice or support – but invariably have agendas of their own.
What is striking is the peculiarity of the dialogue, which is stripped of social propriety so that characters say what they are thinking about, or fantasising about, and others fail to respond. Thus the saxophone teacher who is at the centre of the first narrative says to the mother of one of her students: “Do you hear me, with your mouth like a thin scarlet thread and your deflated bosom and your stale mustard blouse?” The mother “nods imperceptibly”.
Though there can be something of the creative-writing exercise about this, the novel is elevated by the fresh quality of the writing and, despite Catton’s strenuous efforts to remind the reader of the elements of performance in her text, the vividness of her two main characters: Isolde, the lumpy sister of the girl who is involved with the music teacher, who is overshadowed by her sister’s new-found desirability, and Stanley, the sensitive boy at the centre of the second, drama-school narrative, who is in awe of his therapist father’s social confidence and ends up risking everything in the end-of-term performance.
Compared to Catton’s powerful short story “Two Tides” in the current issue of Granta, The Rehearsal feels hampered by its formal concerns. It is difficult to escape the feeling that what is interesting – and moving – is what it manages to achieve despite this.
The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton
317pp, Granta, £12.99