Sometimes it is not what a story is about but the way in which it is told that makes a book remarkable. The Rehearsal, the debut novel from Eleanor Catton, is one such book. Published when Catton was just 22 years old, The Rehearsal garnered numerous accolades, was shortlisted for The Guardian First Book Award and won The Betty Trask Award. It tells the story of a high school sex scandal between a student and her music teacher which then becomes the subject of a show by the local drama college.
Catton conceived of the idea while doing her Masters in Creative Writing at The Institute of Modern Letters and ended up writing the novel as her thesis. This sheds some light on the experimental nature of the book, which moves back and forth in time and which varies widely in tone. Catton obviously felt encouraged and free to give range to her impressive and original imagination.
The idea of acting, the roles people play and the performances people put on in their daily lives is the central theme running throughout the novel. Sometimes the prose is written in the manner of stage directions – lighting is described, props are imagined. The characters speak in monologues and soliloquies, verbose and articulate beyond normal everyday speech. There is a sense of unreality and theatricality for much of the novel, evoking the drama of teenage sexual awakening and wild hormonal mood swings.
The downside to this is that there is little in the way of emotional involvement for the reader. We are constantly being reminded that this is not real, that this is a story, that these characters are constructs. There is no opportunity to escape into the story, to feel the world fall away as it does with the very best books. Catton’s technical ability and imagination are certainly unique for a writer of her age, but perhaps she has focussed on these to the detriment of the emotional and narrative core of the novel. While The Rehearsal is an admirable and thought provoking piece of literature, I ended up reading it as a writer and not as a reader. I think I’ll enjoy Catton’s books more as she matures into the amazing writer she’ll surely become, when she learns to combine her inventiveness with her emotions.