How easy it would have been for me to abandon The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton after only the first few pages and what a mistake! I seriously considered doing so but found myself too fascinated by the premise: a community shaken by a sex scandal between a student and a teacher at an all-girls high school and the local drama school that bases a play on the scandal. The format might not have been the most conventional or the easiest to read but, after a few chapters, I fell into its rhythm and by then I was so wrapped up in the story that you couldn’t have forced me to put it down.
I’m still reeling from the experience of reading this book. I was overwhelmed by it and completely enthralled. Though I usually like a plain, classical narrative structure, I found this fascinating with the way it jumped between those dealing with the sex scandal at the high school (specifically, several of the girls and their private saxophone teacher, a vaguely sinister character with an intense interest in the personal lives of her students that rivals Jean Brodie’s) and those involved in the drama school production. All of the characters, on stage or off, are presented as actors. The wonderful thing is how uncertain the reader is of who is acting at any given time. What is truth and what is fiction? How do you tell the two apart? Can you? Can’t a good actor appropriate a story from another source and, by convincing both herself and her audience that it is her story, make it the truth? I use the female pronoun purposely here because again and again in this novel it is the women who are the best at acting, at masking the truth, as Stanley (a drama student) observes:
Later Stanley would arrive at the opinion that girls were naturally more duplicitous, more artful, better at falsely sheathing their true selves; boys’ personalities simply shone through the clearer. It was that female art of multi-tasking, he would conclude, that witchy capacity that girls possessed, that allowed them to retain dual and triple threads of attention at once. Girls could distinguish constantly and consciously between themselves and the performance of themselves, between the form and the substance. This double-handed knack, this perpetual duality, meant that any one girl was both an advertisement and a product at any one time. Girls were always acting. Girls could reinvent themselves, he later thought, with a sour twist to his mouth and his free hand flattening his hair on his crown, and boys could not. (p. 76-77)
Stanley, poor Stanley, trying to tell a story but surrounded constantly by women who know more about acting and lying and crafting and selling a story than he’ll learn in a lifetime. They are always the ones with the power and he is just collateral damage.
Power is a dominant theme here: the power parents have over children, teachers over students, women over men. The parents are distraught that one of their daughters could have been preyed upon by someone in a position of power but, as one of the teenage characters observes, they’re also terrified that they’ve lost their own power:
‘I’ll tell you why they’re so scared,’ Isolde says. ‘They’re scared because now she knows everything they know. They’re scared because now they’ve got no secrets left.’ (p.14)
Another student notes that it’s the girls themselves who have the most power. One word from them, one allegation, however untrue, could destroy a career, a life. They are the ones who keep everyone else in line.
Like all the girls (and the adults), I was frustrated by the lack of details about the relationship between Mr Saladin (the teacher) and his student Victoria. How did it start? How far did it go? For how long? What did they find in one another? Catton cleverly makes these two very minor players, used only sparingly to leave us in the dark, desperate for the smallest detail, willing to accept any bit of information as true until we hear the next conflicting thing. That was the real genius of the novel for me, how brilliantly Catton captured the jealous, gossiping, fantastical minds of teenage girls. All we know of the illicit relationship is funneled through these unreliable channels. You accept it as truth because you want to know, you want to have details to be able to make sense of what has happened but there are so many details, so many stories, that it’s impossible to know where they all came from, to be able to separate what might be true from what is not.
Overall, this was an amazing first novel from Catton (who, to my disgust, is only a few months older than me). I’ll be eager to see what she does in the future as she refines her skill.