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review: fiction

Eleanor Catton

The Rehearsal, by 25-year-old Canadian-New Zealand author Eleanor Catton, is something completely different. It's almost impossible to classify. The closest comparison might be Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl, or even The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, but The Rehearsal stands alone.

There is a sex scandal at a girls private school: a teacher and a student. The local theatre school decides to put on a play about the scandal. And a saxophone teacher counsels the private-school girls when they come for their lessons. This may seem to be a simple plot, but Catton plays games with the reader by revealing no clear distinction between what is the scandal, what is the saxophone lesson and what is the play. A saxophone lesson that at first seems to be part of the plot may suddenly switch to descriptions of stage lighting, set design and costume. The students become the actors and the actors become the students.

This is twisted even further by the naming of the characters - the teachers at the theatre school are the "Head of Movement," or the "Head of Improvisation," or the "Head of Acting." The saxophone teacher is just that, the "Saxophone teacher." The girls and boys are either "girls" and "boys," or sometimes they have names. It might depend upon where they are, what they are doing, or if they are in the play or in the novel. It might not.

The Rehearsal is about watching and being watched. It is about our impressions of others and how many times we get things wrong. Was the scandal at the private school a rape? Or are the teacher and the student in love? Or was the student the temptress? No one knows, but everyone has an opinion. And the scandal's very existence determines more than you would imagine. When the actors are given a playing card as the central prop for the play they will perform, one of the characters states, "Because at the end of it everything collapses. … For the girl, the victim, the one who was abused. It all comes down around her like a castle of cards."

Eleanor Catton writes beautifully. And differently. Her descriptions, dialogue, character situations and plotting techniques are multilayered and always surprising. She manages to carry this high level of expectation throughout the entire novel. Not once does she falter. I can open the book at any page and quote something that stands out. For example, regarding the girls' reaction to the sex scandal: "It is a mark of the depth of their wounding that they are pretending they suspected it all along. Everything that they have seen and been told about love so far has been an inside perspective, and they are not prepared for the crashing weight of this exclusion. It dawns on them now how much they never saw and how little they were wanted, and with this dawning comes a painful re-imagining of the self as peripheral, uninvited, and utterly minor."

The only difficulty with this approach - the Entire-Book-Is-Profound approach - is that it is exhausting for the reader, and the mind often wanders. Catton knows this. Her characters sum it up when they go to the symphony and are aware that they are present in the beauty of the music, but also lost in their own thoughts: "Julia is listening in a dreamy, sleepy way, the music drawing from her one slow, definite impression rather than a slideshow of impressions that she can cobble together later and divide to find the arithmetic mean."

But this wandering-mind effect is the only problem. And, like being at a symphony, when your mind wanders, it's not a bad thing. In fact, it adds a pleasurable second layer to the music you are hearing. Eleanor Catton has begun on a very high note. I have a feeling she'll sustain it.

Michelle Berry is the author of three short story collections, including the newly published I Still Don't Even Know You.

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