Victoria exits, walking with the pursed self-conscious walk of an actor who has too small a part and so has practised a single move to excess.

The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton

The Rehearsal is a quicksilver novel, dazzling and impossible to grasp. It’s one of the finest debut novels I’ve read, catapulting Catton immediately onto my shortlist of authors whose new releases I’ll be eagerly tracking. As I write this I’m reading her The Luminaries (it’s massive, it’ll take me a while).

The story, such as it is, is pretty simple and follows two narrative strands. In the first, a girl in Abbey Grange High School has had an affair with her music teacher, Mr Saladin. It’s an all-girls’ school and the incident shocks teachers and parents both, leading to anguished conversations at home and communal counselling sessions at school. The second follows a boy’s application and acceptance into a local but nationally prestigious drama school and the students’ end of year project – a play about the affair at Abbey Grange.

The affair itself is never shown, instead the reader sees it only in its effects on the school community and in its interpretation by the drama students. Except it’s not that simple, because almost immediately what’s real and what’s recreation is fatally undermined. The book opens with a private saxophone tutor talking to the mother of a prospective pupil, one she doesn’t wish to accept:

‘The clarinet is tadpole to the sax, can you see that?  The clarinet is a black and silver sperm, and if you love this sperm very much it will one day grow into a saxophone.’ She leans forward across the desk. ‘Mrs Henderson. At present your daughter is simply too young. Let me put it this way: a film of soured breast milk clutches at your daughter like a shroud.’

The tutor’s monologue continues, becoming if anything even stranger, more insulting. It can’t be real dialogue. Catton can’t expect the reader to take this as a scene that’s actually happening as written. If not though, what is happening? Is this the tutor’s fantasy of what she’d like to say? No clue is given, not yet anyway.


Adolescence of course is a time of struggling to get some kind of clue, to how the adult world works, how to behave. The Rehearsal is painfully good on the challenge of those years, the desire to be yourself and to fit in at the same time. There are razor sharp portraits of three very different girls, each affected by the affair (none of them though the one who actually had it), and of the boy at the drama school struggling with the same challenges in a different way.

Catton captures the fever-intensity of adolescence well then, but much more interestingly she captures the sense of trying out roles, possible selves. As the saxophone teacher says to another mother, “‘remember that these years of your daughter’s life are only the rehearsal for everything that comes after.” Life for most of us is performative. We assume roles, at home, with friends, at work; masks we put on and take off as required. In a sense who we are varies by who we’re with.

That’s fine for most adults, because you know what your roles are. Adolescence though is a period when the roles you’ll play are up for grabs. Everything is uncertain, most fundamentally who you are. Are you one of the popular kids? If so, is that all you are, and how secure is that position? Are you one of the arty kids? The science geeks? Good at sport? Or are you one of the kids who’re none of those things, without some clear distinguishing characteristic? And would you want anyway your personality to be capable of being summarised in some one-line cliché? Actually, you probably would, at least you’d know where you stood.

Stanley wasn’t sure what marked him out as a person. He hung back at the beginning of the year and let the other boys claim the roles of the leader and the player and the clown, watching with a kind of uncertain awe as they worked to recruit admirers and an audience. He guessed he wanted to be thought of as sensitive and thoughtful, but he didn’t pursue the branding actively enough and soon those positions were taken. He found himself thoroughly eclipsed by several of the more ambitiously moody boys, boys who were studied in the way they tossed their hair off their forehead, thin boys with paperback copies of Nietzsche nosing out of their satchels, boys wearing self-conscious forlorn looks, permanently anxious and always slightly underfed. Whenever these boys began to speak, the class would peel back respectfully to listen.

As the two narrative strands continue so does the question of what’s real and what isn’t. The chapters set in the school are possibly scenes in a play still being written, rehearsals, the references to parts played may be literal because actors will later (are now) playing them. The chapters in the drama school are more traditionally straightforward but then everyone in the school, and the entire syllabus, is focused on creating roles and giving them life. The drama school creates layers of truth and artificiality, with the students learning how to be other people at precisely the time they’re learning to be themselves.

Everything here is refracted, key scenes are recounted and sometimes remembered quite differently from character to character, nothing can be counted on. That of course is part of adolescence too, that sense that the world is phony and the exaggerated sense of drama one carries through those years. It’s true though far beyond that.

It’s common for perfectly competent people with responsible jobs to feel like they’re faking it, as if one day someone will notice they’re making it up as they go along and that really they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s a common feeling because most of us are making it up as we go along, we rarely know so much that what we do requires no thought, and if we do we get bored so that’s no solution anyway. We play the part of the adults we know we are. A key difference here between the teenagers and the adults who teach them is that the adults already have their roles assigned, they don’t have the same freedom to pick any more.

All this cleverness could easily come badly unstuck, become irritating even. That it doesn’t is simply because Catton is a very good writer.The book fizzes with astute little observations and comic asides. It’s often very funny (I loved a description of a key scene from the play’s opening night – “The group stand stationary for a moment, Stanley and Isolde looking at each other with an intense smouldering glare that is lost to everyone in the upper circle and in the restricted-viewing sections of the stalls.”). It’s also often painfully accurate, acutely well observed.

She watches as the other girls trip in from the cold, linking arms with their favourite friends so they advance across the room in a rectangular squadron of favourites. They negotiate seating with whispers and nudges and a desperate narrow-eyed panic, always fearful of one day occupying the terrible seats on the periphery which force you to lean across and be forever asking ‘What? What’s so funny? What did she say?’

The book is full of small insights like that one, another I could just as easily have picked comes when Stanley is auditioning for his place in the drama school and suddenly realises that all the girls auditioning are beautiful, while the boys look ordinary “as if the boys were here to audition for ten different character parts in a play, and the girls were all auditioning for a single role.”

I’m going to end on one final quote, chosen because it seemed to me to capture the book’s marvellous intersection of the awkwardly intense self-awareness of adolescence and the underlying artificiality of everyday life. Julia, one of the schoolgirls, is here talking to the saxophone instructor (though of course nobody would ever speak to their tutor, or to anyone really, in quite this way):

‘I’ve been looking at all the ordinary staples of flirting,’ Julia says, ‘like biting your lip and looking away just a second too late, and laughing a lot and finding every excuse to touch, light fingertips on a forearm or a thigh that emphasise and punctuate the laughter. I’ve been thinking about what a comfort these things are, these textbook methods, precisely because they need no decoding, no translation. Once, a long time ago, you could probably bite your lip and it would mean, I am almost overcome with desiring you. Now you bite your lip and it means, I want you to see that I am almost overcome with desiring you, so I am using the plainest and most universally accepted signal I can think of to make you see. Now it means, Both of us know the implications of my biting my lip and what I am trying to say. We are speaking a language, you and I together, a language that we did not invent, a language that is not unique to our uttering. We are speaking someone else’s lines. It’s a comfort.’

I’ve not read a lot so far in 2014, but much of what I have read has been extraordinary (Cervantes, Proust). It’s a testament then to Catton’s skill that this still stands out for me as one of my highlight reads of the year. The Rehearsal is a novel aware of its own artifice and unafraid of it, in fact it revels in it. It discards a lot of basic narrative assumptions, but not as an empty exercise in form, the style and structure are integral to reflecting the themes. Besides, it’s never frustrating because it’s such an enjoyable read.

The cover makes The Rehearsal look like a story driven novel, and the story is one that’s all too familiar and none too interesting. What’s behind it is stranger and better than that, and if it’s not on my end of year list a few months from now I’ll be doing very well indeed for my reading for the rest of the year.

The Rehearsal first caught my attention with  Kevinfromcanada’s review here, and again with David Hebblethwaite’s review here. Both those are very much worth reading (I think it’s one of David’s best reviews actually, which is high praise given the quality of his general output). I don’t normally link to newspaper reviews, but there’s also a very good one at the Guardian, here.


Filed under Catton, Eleanor, New Zealand fiction

23 responses to “Victoria exits, walking with the pursed self-conscious walk of an actor who has too small a part and so has practised a single move to excess.

  1. Wow, this does sound exceptional, Max. A very intriguing review, one that leaves me keen to read The Rehearsal.

    As I was reading your piece, I was wondering if the intricate structure might get in the way of enjoyment, but you’ve answered that one. I may have misunderstood this, but are these stories ‘nested’ (a story within a story), or is it more complex than that. It sounds as if it might be the latter, more complex, especially give your comments about distinguishing between what’s real and what’s perceived (or refracted through the lens of another).

  2. Urgh, she’s my age.

    Been putting off reading her books. ‘cos, you know, she’s my age and I’ve accomplished.. sod all in my own life. But having read this review (excellent btw Max), I’m gonna have to just man-up and read it, aren’t I?



  3. I’m not tempted by The Luminaries yet although I’ve read some great reviews, but this sounds appealing and is maybe a good intro to her writing.
    The “biting the lip” quote is astute because it shows how she decodes behaviour and doesn’t shy away from something as seemingly trivial.

  4. More complex Jacqui. The story doesn’t necessarily follow chronology (though as David says in his piece that’s never confusing), and the two strands sit mostly alongside each other with it being far from clear how one relates to the other. Someone on twitter just asked if they were being dense in not understanding what was going on by chapter two. They weren’t being dense, you have to give a bit of faith and it never entirely resolves itself. It’s not a realist novel in that sense.

    Tomcat, she hasn’t written the finest review of the Hungry Caterpillar ever committed to page either though. David found her age a positive, I recall him saying that it seemed to him like one of the first great writers of his generation.

    Caroline, it’s a good intro in that it’s a quarter or less the length of The Luminaries, so the investment is much less. It’s very astute, that’s why I included that quote, it’s very representative I think of the book.

  5. Max – thanks for this review and for the twitter reassurance earlier. I thought I had lost the plot after the first chapter and was mightily confused. Your review has convinced me to persist and I have no doubt I will enjoy it. It is clear, even from the opening chapter that she has uncanny observational skills and an amazing means of translating those into words.

  6. Sarah, glad I was useful. Let me know how you get on, even if you decide it’s not for you in the end and bail. She definitely does have great observational skills.

  7. Like Caroline, I saw great review of the Luminaries but wasn’t tempted, and strangely enough I’m not pulled in by this one either in in spite of your enthusiasm. The breast milk quote put me off

  8. Your review brought back detailed memories of this one immediately — a tribute to Catton as a writer. Like you, I will be buying anything she writes.

    As I am sure you have discovered already, The Luminaries is a very different book. I liked it as well, although I would say The Rehearsal is a better book for me — your review points to most of the reasons why that is the case. Given her youth, I’d say Catton is still exploring just where and how her talent is best expressed. So far I would say she has already produced two outstanding examples.

  9. Guy, I always consider it a favour when a blogger puts me off a book, my reading list is so long, so I’d view it that way. The point of the quotes in part is to give people a fair sense, so if they don’t work for you I don’t think the book would.

    Kevin, yes, it’s been a little while since I read this but it came flooding back. It really is very good. The Luminaries so far is very different, and I expect it to get more different yet. Which I’ll prefer is far too early to say, but wherever she goes next will I think be worth following. Thanks for helping turn me onto it.

  10. Thanks, Max – that’s useful to know. I do plan on reading The Rehearsal — everything you mention in your review and comments, along with Kevin’s comments indicate I should do so — but I may not get to it till the autumn. I’m also wondering whether to hold it as my pick for our book group when my turn comes around later this year. It sounds as if it has the potential to give rise to a very interesting discussion.

  11. I think it could make an excellent book for a book group, provided it wasn’t too conservative a group…

  12. Jacquiwine: I suspect The Rehearsal would be a very good book group choice. There is a wide range of characters who are equally capable of being loved or hated — which makes for lively discussion. And there is enough ambiguity to the “plots” (as Max indicates in his review) that there will be debate on just what is real and what is being imagined or interpreted.

  13. Great, our group is pretty broad minded.

  14. Thank you, Kevin. It’s that sense of ambiguity that made me think it would make a great choice for our book group. That’s my next pick sorted, then!

    Cheers, both.

  15. Thanks for the kind words about my review, Max; I enjoyed yours – it reminded me of why I loved this book so much. Actually, I think we agree on it in just about every respect!

    Regarding Catton’s age, at the time I read The Rehearsal I was particularly interested in exploring what people of my generation were writing – and I was so pleased to find one so brilliant. I really do believe that she’s going to be one of the most important writers of her time.

    The Luminaries only confirmed that impression for me. It’s difficult to say which I like best; The Rehearsal was such a wonderful surprise, but I’m still thinking about The Luminaries a year after reading it. I do think that reading The Rehearsal first gives you a different perspective on The Luminaries; in many ways, it’s doing similar things to the first book, but less obviously so.

    I’d also say that The Rehearsal would make a good book group choice, for the right group. There would be no shortage of things to discuss!

    Oh, the cover. The UK hardback cover is much better; I don’t know why they thought changing it for the paperback. If I’d seen The Rehearsal in a shop with the paperback cover, knowing nothing else about it, I may well not have picked it up. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

  16. Well, this book’s gone on my must-read list. I didn’t enjoy The Luminaries (I thought Catton’s prose seemed rather forced in trying to seem typically Victorian.) However, the snippets from The Rehearsal here seem quite sparkling! Thanks for the lovely review.

  17. Great review, and quite agree. I ignored The Rehearsal for a long time as, well, it’s easier to do that and lazily assume it’s of a certain ilk (and the cover hardly helps) than add ANOTHER book to the pile but your review convinced me to finally have a go. It’s virtually flawless and as a debut novel it’s astounding. It’s also, for me, better than The Luminaries, more ‘uniquely her’ if that makes sense. The Luminaries seems to be an attempt at a certain type of novel that we already have plenty of – The Rehearsal seems more distinct. And is only slightly better than Tomcat’s Hungry Caterpillar tour de force.

  18. David, thanks, and I think we do.

    The Luminaries is more challenging. Work meant I couldn’t read it for a week, and given the complexity of the narrative I then had to duck back several pages to remind myself who people were, what was going on, it’s a demanding read in a very basic sense. Of course, that’s intentional since it’s at this point at least a pastiche of the 19th Century novel.

    That original cover is much better. The current one, well, as I discussed a bit in m y readwomen2014 post it’s about making a book by a woman look like chicklit, which I think does both book and reader a disservice (and not just the literary reader, if I were looking for a fun chicklit beach read I’d be disappointed by The Rehearsal).

    Ms. Sarky, thanks for the comment! I do hope you enjoy The Rehearsal more. Please come back and let me know, even if only to say “how could you have recommended this! What were you thinking!”.

    Lee, the cover really doesn’t do it justice. I was really surprised by how good it was, and isn’t it a delight to actually be surprised by a work of art? I think it’s what many of us hope for, but rarely happens.

  19. Great review. I wasn’t tempted by The Luminaries but this one appeals to me for its theme and the writing.

    I have a question about this “Everything is uncertain, most fundamentally who you are. Are you one of the popular kids? If so, is that all you are, and how secure is that position? Are you one of the arty kids? The science geeks? Good at sport? Or are you one of the kids who’re none of those things, without some clear distinguishing characteristic?”
    Do you have that kind of boxes for teenagers in the UK too? It sounds like what I see in US teen movies. I’m asking because in France, there’s no such things as been in the “geek” or “arty” group. High schools don’t make a fuss about their sports teams and most of extra-curricular activities are done away from the school premises. You don’t know what other students are into unless you’re friends or at least acquainted. It helps avoiding boxes…

    PS : “sigh” another book cover with a beheaded woman. Why are publishers so keen on women without faces???

  20. Thanks Emma. It’s very different to The Luminaries, I can easily imagine liking one but not the other (though I’m still enjoying The Luminaries).

    We do have that a bit in the UK, but not to the extremes shown in US teen movies. In my experience there were tribes, but most kids I think didn’t really belong to any of them. My suspicion is that the same is true in the US, that most kids aren’t part of one of these groups, but it makes better drama to focus on them when doing a teen movie.

    Good point on the cover.

  21. shigekuni

    It sounds really interesting. I have been planning on reading The Luminaries for a while (not helped by the fact that my antipodean shelf is on eye level immediately to my right when I’m at the desk), and never gave any attention to her debut novel. On my reading list it goes.

  22. It has the advantage of not being over 800 pages long. I loved The Luminaries, eventually though not always during the first half, but this is a much easier in. I’m glad I took them in the order I did.

  23. Pingback: Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year | Pechorin's Journal

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