Everything you’ve heard about Eleanor Catton is true. She is, quite simply, amazing. And her debut novel The Rehearsal has got critics, readers and writers alike all atwitter with excitement.
Catton graduated from Bill Manhire’s Creative Writing Course in 2007 and already has a string of successes to her name. Her latest achievement is a fellowship to study at the much esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Oh, and she’s younger than I am. Impressed? Yes. Jealous? Bitterly.
The Rehearsal entwines two interrelated storylines. The first haphazardly pokes around the aftermath of a high school sex scandal. Catton brilliantly captures the myriad of confusion, excitement and silent jealousy of the school community. What appears to be a familiar classroom moment or schoolyard encounter is, in fact, dense in subtext. Catton lets her characters do the talking. But there is a sense that every observance, every action, every utterance is deliberately layered with significance.
The second narrative relates a drama school’s theatrical production of the sex scandal. The Rehearsal infuses the two narratives so that the lines between reality and representation are often blurred and even irrelevant. On occasion, the reader is uncertain whether the scene is real, theatrical or imagined. The actors speak with foresight, the ‘real’ people with insight. Both are eloquent, poetic and not a breath is wasted on the banal.
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Catton is a natural born writer. Her command of language—in diction, pace and structure—showcases her talent in evoking scenes with a poignancy rarely seen in modern writers. Even the most everyday setting is retold with a sort of cinematic vision: “Isolde is standing in the creamy lilac light of a late-afternoon school corridor with all the lockers hanging empty and open and the chip packets scudding across the floor like silver leaves.”
Catton’s lyrical prose echoes Mansfield, but without the prettiness. And while Mansfield quietly stains her quaint Edwardian world with shadowed dangers, Catton’s world is smudged and dirty, languishing in its own debauchery. Emily Perkins accurately describes The Rehearsal as “a daring book, full of velvety pleasures … [that’s] never afraid to show its claws.”
What’s more, The Rehearsal reveals a clarity of vision so that, when filtered through Catton’s authorial voice, those little universal snippets of life suddenly make sense. For example, Catton captures the essence of the older-younger sister relationship in just a few sentences: “As the elder, Victoria’s perspective on her little sister’s life is always that of a recent veteran, knowing and qualified and unshockable. It is as if, at each new stage, Isolde merely picks up another hand-me-down costume that Victoria has grown out of…”
Beautifully crafted and insightful, The Rehearsal is a delicious read. It leaves the reader’s senses and intellect utterly sated. But at the same time, silently craving more.