I have finally caught up with The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, I am not at all sure why it slipped under my radar since it is highly praised by people I admire, like Kate Atkinson who described it as “compulsively good”; Joshua Ferris described it as “mesmerising, labyrinthine, intricately patterned…” She is also an author whose background ticks all my boxes: born in Canada and raised in New Zealand, and female! I was fortunate to be able to obtain from Primrose Hill Books a practically new First Edition, which comes wittily with four Rehearsal tickets, punched to show that the performance has been attended. Great idea!
All that said, I found there were some real problems with the book. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, at least some of the time I was completely unclear where I was in the story. It is a complex and difficult plot to follow and without using a spoiler it is hard to explain. Put simplistically, there has been a case of sexual abuse by a teacher on a pupil of Abbey School; the fall out is largely described by Isolde, the sister of the ‘victim’ and deals with how she gets treated afterwards, it deals with the now compulsory group counselling that takes place after such an event – Isolde’s problem with this being that she is two forms younger than the other girls in the group session and is only there because of her close relationship to the event protagonist. There is also a very successful treatment of Victoria, the ‘victim’, by her peers; both before and after she actually returns to the school, in gossipy, speculative, girly-bitch-sessions – not pretty, but pretty accurate!
Where I lost the thread was a whole series of scenes in which the saxophone teacher, a pivotal if shadowy figure in the plot, is seemingly ‘acting-out’, this with different girls playing out roles in the story. While the ‘role-play’ went on she, the teacher keeps re-thinking the casting, so that she imagines different girls (there are four main girls in the role-play) in the separate parts, how would giving the Isolde ‘role’ be different if given to Bridget, how would Julia perform as Isolde, and Isolde…
Then to add another layer of engagement (and difficulty) you meet Stanley, a student at the drama school nearby to where the saxophone teacher has her studio. He meets Isolde and in a complicated series of mistakes and misunderstandings happens be in an End-of-Year drama that ‘uses’ her sister’s story as the basis of the First Year production, to which because of Isolde’s relationship with Stanley, her parents come…
All this without even going into the quasi-lesbian relationships: among the school girls, the saxophone teacher, the saxophone teacher’s mentor, Patsy; ‘labyrinthine’ doesn’t even touch it!
The design of the book is also cunning, it feels like a notebook in the hand, this is because the dust-jacket is textured so that as your hand balances the book open to read, it feels as though you are touching a spiral-bound book. It is all very, very clever.
You will know that I am gunning for Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, there is no public voting so I am rather afraid I shall not get my way. But I do urge you to read both these books. I may not be quite so unequivocally supportive of The Rehearsal, but if you like to do things ‘in the right order’, you might feel obliged to start with this