School, we are often told, is a world apart—it’s a place to practice, to make mistakes, to try on different roles. And so when the complications of the real world encroach upon the idyll of school life—when, say, a teacher seduces his underage student—concerned adults rush in to preserve the school’s sheltered atmosphere, armed with counseling sessions and healing phrases. It’s an impulse Eleanor Catton sends up quite wittily in her debut novel, The Rehearsal. She knows as well as we do that school was never safe to begin with, and that its teenage inhabitants are drama addicts who live for scandal.
The Rehearsal is set in two different schools: Abbey Grange, a private girls’ academy, and a drama college known as the Institute. The novel focuses first on the fallout of an affair between a teacher and a student at Abbey Grange, and then, in a more subdued way, on the random death of a second Abbey Grange student. These may sound like typical young adult plotlines but very little about this novel is typical. Instead of narrating in a straightforward realist manner, with glimpses into the lives of the victims of each tragedy, Catton tells her stories indirectly, from a variety of outsider perspectives. We hear from the girls at the academy who had nothing to do with the affair, but who are forced to live in its wake; we hear from a saxophone teacher, who tutors several of the girls from the academy; and finally—and most daringly—we hear from the students at the Institute whose prurient interest in the affair leads them to stage a production of it. The variety of voices makes for disconcerting shifts in tone and style, but Catton gets away with it because she uses her changing narrators to build suspense. It’s not immediately obvious how everyone is linked, and by the end of the novel, I was racing to discover how all the storylines would become intertwined.
For all its plot complications, the structure of the The Rehearsal is simple, with the focus of each chapter alternating between the students at Abbey Grange and the students at the Institute. The book opens from the point of view of the saxophone teacher, who is just learning the details of the affair from her pupils and their fretting mothers. There’s something immediately theatrical about the saxophone teacher, whose over-the-top speeches are reminiscent of Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie. “Is your life a gift worth giving?” she says to her students. “Your normal, vanilla-flavored life, your two-minute noodles after school, your television until ten, your candles on the dresser and facewash on the sink?” To one of the anxious mothers she says, by way of comfort: “It’s a terrible thing, that this venomous little man should have stolen your daughter’s innocence so slyly, without ever having laid a finger on her, shoving his dirty little secrets down her throat like candy from a brown paper bag.”
Like Miss Jean Brodie, the saxophone teacher (who is never given a name) is unlucky in love, and lives vicariously through her pupils. She coaxes them into monologues about their personal lives, and even tries to cook up a romance between two of her favorite students. This makes for discomfiting reading, not only because of the subject matter, but also because there’s something artificial about the interactions between the saxophone teacher and her pupils. Your patience for this will depend upon how close you want to get to the girls. Catton keeps you at a distance from them, forcing you to see them as performers, and in turn, forcing you to acknowledge how much female sexuality, particularly among adolescent girls, is a form of role-playing.
In contrast, the chapters that focus on the Institute and its students are written in a much more intimate style, and follow a simple coming-of-age narrative. Our hero is Stanley, a naive acting student without any particular talent or ambition. When asked, during an audition, to talk a little about himself, Stanley’s vague answer is typical of his character: “I don’t know whether I’m any good at feeling things…in high school I kind of tried things on, just to see what it was like.” He’s a disaffected and rather timid fellow, especially when confronted by his overbearing father, a psychiatrist with a taste for pedophilia jokes. “They’ll do terrible things to you there,” Stanley’s father says, when he learns of Stanley’s interest in the Institute. “You’ll get in touch with your emotions and your inner eye and worse. I won’t recognize you this time next year. You’ll just be this big pink ball of feeling.” This, of course, is exactly the transformation we want for Stanley and it’s satisfying to watch him begin to express himself as he undergoes the rigors of his theatrical training. The Institute is known as a prestigious yet strange school, and Catton plays up its otherworldly qualities:
“Whenever a door was closed at the Institute another always opened, popping gently forth, invisibly nudged by a draught that could never be contained. The shifty current gave the buildings a muttering, ghostly feel. If Stanley closed a door behind him, he always listened to hear another click open, like a faithful echo, out of shadows further up the hall.”
Those sentences could also be used to describe Catton’s narrative technique, which has the same “shifty current.” She doesn’t tell her story chronologically, and often doubles back to revisit the same scenes from different points of view. This effect is heightened when the students at the Institute decide to write a play about an affair between a teacher and a student, using details gleaned from the real Abbey Grange scandal. We become privy to rehearsals and monologues that recycle ideas and dialogue from earlier scenes. At this point the boundary between drama and real life become blurred and it’s hard to know which details are true and which are invented. This seems to be Catton’s point: one of the most uncomfortable things about a sex scandal is that we all, to some degree, project our own desires onto it.
The Rehearsal was first published in New Zealand in 2008, and last year it was released in the UK, where it was long-listed for the Orange Prize. Much has been made of the fact that Catton wrote The Rehearsal when she was only twenty-two years old, and I have to admit that one of the pleasures of reading it is the feeling that its author is reporting directly from teenage life. The Rehearsal is often about the dynamics among adolescent girls, and Catton manages to rise above the usual catfight clichés by showing the romantic sweetness that can arise between female friends as well as the petty betrayals. Catton is also canny about the way young girls look to one another for definition, rather than their boyfriends, parents, or teachers. When the girls at Abbey Grange first learn of the affair, it is the girl’s deceit that upsets them most:
“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 reimagining of the self as peripheral, uninvited, and utterly minor.”
It’s in psychological insights like the above when Catton is at her best, and occasionally I wished for more exposition and less dialogue. Catton has said she began this book as a monologue, and there are times when the characters become mouthpieces for quasi-controversial ideas that don’t seem to have much bearing on the story. But even during those moments, The Rehearsal showcases a lively mind unafraid of kicking up mischief.