Eleanor Catton’s seductive debut, The Rehearsal, is a vibrant novel that tests its readers, both in terms of content and form. Through interwoven, nonlinear narratives, it tells the story of a high school sex scandal, as well as the first year students at a local drama institute who appropriate the tale for their year-end production. By intermixing these two storylines, reality and fiction blur together, and readers are constantly forced to sort out what is truth and what exists only on the stage or in the students’ minds.
Equally challenging is the tricky age group Catton focuses on—girls in their teens, teetering on the cusp of womanhood. We watch as Julia, Isolde and Bridget start to understand their own sexuality and the intoxicating power it affords. Gradually they are introduced to a world where one’s own self often feels like a stranger; thus, they try on different skins, practicing for the day they step upon the stage of adulthood, learning to inhabit themselves with confidence. Stanley, a drama student, struggles with these same questions, but in a different way, wondering how to imbue the characters he plays with vitality and authenticity when he does not fully understand himself.
At the novel’s dizzying climax—a music recital—Catton lays bare her central tenet like a tree hanging heavy with fruit: “Remember that these years of your daughter’s life are only the rehearsal for everything that comes after. Remember that it’s in her best interests for everything to go wrong. It’s in her best interests to slip up now, while she’s still safe in the Green Room. . . .” So speaks the austere saxophone teacher who has presided throughout the novel, goading her pupils with penetrating questions and ensnaring them with the music of jazz, which is sensual, heady and raw—the perfect soundtrack for this novel of ripening adolescence. Daring and lush, The Rehearsal was recently long-listed for the Orange Prize, and it proves a most beguiling read.