02/03/09
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The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton

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.

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.

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Comments (7)

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  1. scissors says:

    Woah, talk about gushing! That review was a tad nauseating if you ask me. Frankly, I think this book is deeply overrated. It’s full of characters sitting around pontificating in deeply unnatural dialogue. Very immature stuff.

  2. I’m reading the book now, and loving it. No accounting for taste, I suppose.

  3. Josephine Thalbach says:

    Just finished the book, it is indeed quite impressive for a first novel. I found the maturity, the depth of insights, the complex narrative on several levels and different time span, incredibly interesting. My only reservation is that, after having closed the book it felt a bit dry and with no real conclusion, very much like a very clever exercise, all emotions left out. Wich is fine, after all. ‘Emotions’ is obviously not what Eleonor wanted for that book. But I still think that the over-intellectualization of the characters leaves something missing and that the characters would have benefited to be better fleshed out.

  4. Just another bridesmaid says:

    I’m currently about a quarter of the way through this. There’s no doubt about the writing talent, but… I can’t decide if this is meant to be – specifically – a savage satire or “just” a “frank and fearless” novel “about” another aspect of postmodernity. All the characters are utterly loveless, which both chills and bores me, and that’s going to make it hard to finish what is – mostly – well done. I guess I’m a leetle discomforted by being rather unsubtly “educated” about what goes on at drama school too… but that is, of course, a matter of taste.

  5. Chris says:

    Hmmm, regarding the previous comments. Reading this novel a little while ago I was totally impressed by the sophistication of the writing and the depth and intelligence that Catton displays in her ideas and dialogues. Reading The Rehearsal reminded me of the reading sensation I had when I first read Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. The sheer surprise and later bewilderment of picking up a novel that is so smart and brilliant in its composition and written by such a young author is thought provoking. How is it possible that a twenty something can write such a breathtaking novel that puts many a more mature novelist to shame? Where did Miss Catton come from? Where did she find or develop this form? What do our friends in New Zealand and Canada put in the water? We want more.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Just in case anyone is thinking of taking any notice of scissors’ comments, (s)he has completely missed the point. The passages where the characters talk in a more florid way and those which are part of the students’ production and are meant to represent their (melo)dramatic interpretation of what happened. I think the book is note-perfect and one of the best debut novels I have ever read. Please read it… (no, I have no link to the book, other than being a bookseller keen to see it succeed).

  7. Having read the Sunday Times article in the UK, I guess I would suspect the novel to be a favorite of my mothers, not necessarily something I would read.
    Being more science orientated I have more interests in other types of scandals. recent books include Elsebeth’s Huxleys A Man from Nowhere.
    Please contact me though.