Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book review: The Rehearsal

A while back I reviewed a novel by Eleanor Catton, New Zealand's new writing sensation. That novel, The Luminaries, is Catton's second novel. It won the Man Booker Prize for fiction and it is a marvel of plotting and structure. I was and am astonished that such a young writer (Catton is 28 years old) could produce such a profound and delightful work.

In fact, The Luminaries was such a great read that I was compelled to purchase and read Catton's other book--her debut novel --The Rehearsal.

The Rehearsal is a coming-of-age story set in modern-day New Zealand. The main protagonist, Isolde, is a student at Abbey Grange, a girl's prep school rocked by scandal. It has recently been discovered that Mr. Saladin, the school's jazz instructor was involved in a love affair with one of the students, Isolde's sister, Victoria. The taboo relationship is the subject of dark, guilty fascination by the girls and of consternation by their clueless parents. Isolde, overshadowed and forgotten in all the concern over her sister, confides in her saxophone teacher who provides private lessons in an attic room near the school. The sax teacher --enigmatic, cold, and secretly passionate --has an agenda of her own. She takes vicarious pleasure in hearing the stories her students tell her about their lives. Meanwhile, Stanley, an aspiring young actor, has enrolled in "the Institute," a drama school situated across the square from Abbey Grange. He and the other acting students decide to create a dramatic production of the scandal as their first-year project.

What unfolds from there is a subtle tale of angst and youthful confusion. It is a good read, but not a whimsical one.

The Rehearsal challenges readers in a number of ways. Much of the action takes place "off-stage" and requires the reader to infer what has happened in the gaps. The timeline jumps around between present and past and it is sometimes difficult to keep track of the chronological sequence of events as the characters progress through the year.

In her experiments with structure, Catton reveals herself as a student of David Mitchell. (In fact, she names Cloud Atlas as one of her Top Twenty Novels of All Time.) The Rehearsal seems to be taking place on stage. Characters sometimes deliver theater-like soliloquies, complete with spotlight and faded out surroundings. At other times, the narrative is "live" and taking place in the here-and-now. This transition can sometimes occur within a single scene.

Catton is a superb writer. Her prose is polished, and well-crafted; intricate despite its simplicity. She makes good use of symbols and populates the story with ample allusions to theatrical classics like Equus, Barefoot in the Park (to name just two).

I enjoyed this book, but at times it felt arduous. The novel is universal enough that I had sympathy with the characters, but really, I think it will mostly speak to young women. That is, young women will probably have the easiest time accessing the insights that Catton offers. (And, I must say, I continue to be amazed that such a young person could have such keen perceptions when it comes to human motives.)

After reading The Luminaries, I added Eleanor Catton to my list of must-read authors, and The Rehearsal does nothing to make me doubt my decision. But for all the craft and skill that went into its creation, The Rehearsal is a mere prolegomenon for The Luminaries which I found to be exponentially more enjoyable.

If her next novel surpasses her second by the same margin, we could be witnessing the birth of a new Emily Brontë. But a Brontë with a David Mitchell twist!

1 comment:

Simon said...

Prolegomenon! Thanks for that, Dade. The Luminaries is on my list!