The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

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The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Combining plenty of dark humour, this innovative novel explores reality and the media through interrelated stories about a school sex scandal and a local drama Institute with plans of telling the story as its end of year production. It's an ambitious, daring and complex novel that works beautifully and is even more impressive as it is the author's first novel.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Granta
ISBN: 978-1847081162

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If you are the type of person who wants their novels to start at the beginning, build character and plot before coming to a satisfying 'they all lived happily ever after' ending, then avoid this book at all costs. You will hate it. But I cannot remember when I last enjoyed a first time novel as much as this one. It is ambitious, daring and complex, and yet it works beautifully.

The basis for the story is a scandal at a school involving a music teacher, Mr Saladin, and Victoria, the elder sister of one of the main characters, Isolde. This impact of this event is viewed both from the point of view of the girls at the school, and also as the basis for an end of year drama production by the local drama Institute. The two stories start separately, but inevitably mesh as the book progresses. The drama school bit is arguably a bit of a stretched conceit, but this is forgivable as the author explores the concepts of reality and performance. But this is just one of the aspects of this book.

Was the errant Mr Saladin any worse than the dark and mysterious saxophone teacher whose attempts to control and interfere with her charges appears at times more sinister than Mr Saladin's sexual urges? Her habit of speaking exactly what she thinks is hilarious at times. And the author's psychological insights into the fears of teenagers growing up are beautifully observed. And how does the media (in this case a play) reflect reality? - and does reality exist? - and how much of it is performance (as Shakespeare once noted)?, and so much more....

There's dark humour aplenty mixed with the fears and excitement of growing up. It is a very difficult book to describe - the voices sound real in an unreal way. The closest I can get to explaining it is a line given by the Head of Acting at the drama Institute who likens plays to the ancient Greek god statues - they are not meant to be representative but they allow you a point of access that seems real. If that sounds pretentious mumbo-jumbo, that is what makes this book so excellent - it is such a complex tapestry of a story that it could easily have come over as pseudo high brow and pretentious, but it doesn't largely because it's told with humour and sympathy. The characters, while not all likeable, are all easy to sympathise with and all are clearly drawn. It's not an easy book to start, but after ten pages, I was hooked and it's the kind of book that you can re-read and get more out of. And the more you read, the more it rings in your head, like a piece of classical music the phrases and stories are interwoven.

To be honest, I can see why some will not enjoy this book (there is little in the way of direct narrative, the time scenes jump around, and some of the voices are far from naturalistic, and the ending is a little anticlimactic), but it is one of the most innovative and intricate books I've read in a long while and as a first novel it is astonishingly adept. I will be recommending this book to everyone.

The Rehearsal is long listed for the 2010 Orange Prize and it's easy to see why. Whether she wins or not, Eleanor Catton is certainly a young novelist to watch out for.

Other books on the Orange long list that are highly recommended include MJ Hyland's This is How and Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna. Stiff competition from female novelists indeed!

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