Eleanor Catton’s debut novel is about to cause a stir when it is published in July. The Rehearsal is a coming of age novel, unlike any other. It has a simmering sexuality similar to that in The Virgin Suicides, but is more poetic, subversive and hard-edged.
It is the story of a sex scandal at a girl’s high school and the impacts it has on those at the school. In a parallel narrative, a group of students from a local drama institute pick up on the scandal in the news and make it the subject of their end of year play.
Victoria is the pupil. We only meet her once in the book, near to the end. All we know about her is reported. The facts of what happened are elusive, exaggerated by gossip and speculation, and change with each telling of the story. The girls in her jazz band feel betrayed that Victoria didn’t share her secret with them, perhaps jealous that this didn’t happen to them. The school counsellor acts as though all the girls will be tainted by the incident, the Saxophone teacher knows they will all be tainted by it.
Mr Saladin is equally the subject of gossip and conjecture. We sometimes hear that he raped her, other times it is a love affair, finished or continuing. He is the seducer and the seduced, a person to be admired and scorned, depending which character is giving us insight. We hear different accounts of what happened, where, how they were found out. The facts are less important, than the rippling-out impact of the incident on others.
Eleanor Catton has a bewitching prose style that hovers on the edge of real. Her characters talk as though they are always on the brink of their most dramatic, playful moments. They speak with deliberation, as though they are rehearsing or performing in a play of their own. We are never entirely sure what is performance and what is ‘real’: ‘Here in the deserted hallway Isolde takes a moment to enjoy the backstage silence before she is cued to knock and enter.’ The action within the novel is stage-lit, the light changes with moods, the characters are actors even when they are not actors, each has their own ‘part’ in the drama that unfolds in the book.
The writing is sensuous, dripping with metaphor and the language of poetic adolescents on the dangerous edge of a fall. It is intimate and very much located in the body: ‘a private swollen feeling in the deep well of her chest’; ‘tugged at the empty half-basin of her pelvic bone’; ‘Did I feel this jangled swoop of dread and longing, this elevator-dive, this strange suspended prelude to a sneeze?’ Reading this book, is like sharing the most private secret, or like confession.
The Saxophone Teacher seems central to this, like the best of confidantes, we never know her name. She gives private lessons to girls who want to shock and impress her with their confidences. She provokes them with questions, and relishes their secret passions. Her relationships with her pupils are questionable in the intimacy she seeks with them, but tantalising to read. She says to one parent that she wants pupils who are ‘moody and bewildered and awkward and dissatisfied. When she realises that her body is a secret, a dark yawning secret of which she becomes more and more ashamed, come back to me.’ In fact, she describes the sax as ‘grimy and sexy and sweaty and hard. It is the language of whores and bastards’, and as ‘the cocaine of the woodwind family’. She rarely holds back.
The whole novel is brooding with sexuality. The girls imagine various scenes involving Victoria and Mr Saladin. They fear the unknown and desire it. The story is filled with imagined kisses in dark cars, in cupboards. They describe these scenes in detail so that imagination becomes real, real becomes pretend, performances are convincing even thought they are only performances.
At the same time, over at the drama institute, acts of brutality are made to seem real, students question what they would do if a rape scene in a play seemed real, would they intervene?
The tension in the novel is incredible. It slow-builds without a climax, to a point where we are dying to know what has happened, what is happening, what will happen. Even at the end, there are doubts about what is real, as performances and the two plot lines merge within the final chapter. The pace and timing is perfect. We feed on the tension, the ‘drama’ in the same way the Saxophone Teacher does. There is something about characters re-telling events, imagining events, sharing secrets, that gives an accumulated sense that something is about to happen, and yet, we are never entirely sure what this is.
There is so much more to this novel than I have mentioned: the death of a student, the experimental style of the prose, the symbolism of playing cards, the manipulative nature of the girls who use emotion to get what they want, the parallels between different characters experience, the ‘physical and emotional undoing’ of the drama students as they take part in various rehearsals and exercises at the drama institute.
I want to leave you with one sentence from the book, which gives an insight into the delicious dizzying experience of reading The Rehearsal.
‘You will try and recreate that one kiss with all your loves, try and replay it over and over; it will sit like an old video loop on a television screen in front of you, and you will lean forward to touch the cool bulge of glass with your forehead and you will feel the ripple-fur of static with your fingers and your cheek and you will be illumined, lit up by the blue-black glow of it, the bursts of light, but in the end you will never really be about to touch it, this perfect memory, this one solitary moment of unknowing where you were simply innocent of who you were, of what you might become’.
Perhaps it will tempt you to get a copy of this book, it’s worth every penny.
Any Cop?: The Rehearsal is a simmering novel about sex scandals, performance and intimacy, an experimental take on coming of age, and a deliciously written debut from a New Zealand novelist to watch out for…