Eleanor Catton's debut novel is a brilliant exploration of the arts, sexuality, and, most significantly, the line that separates truth from fiction. Written as her Master's thesis, The Rehearsal shows the natural talent of Catton, who writes as intelligently and maturely here as she did in her prize-winning follow-up, The Luminaries. While Catton's work is far from the most readable of young authors today, it's undoubtedly some of the most intelligent and finely woven fiction I have ever seen. Each word is chosen with such foresight and precision that it's a wonder to me how she produces novels as fast as she does (were I capable of producing a work such as The Luminaries, I imagine it would take a lifetime.)
Set in an arts school following a scandal—a teacher's affair with an underage student—The Rehearsal may sound like your average morality play or Lifetime movie. It's far from it. At times, with its ambiguously drawn scenes and dramatic play of various relationships, I was reminded of a tamer David Lynch. And at times, especially as I was pulled into the story of the drama school, I was reminded of the darkness and mindfuckery of 2010's Black Swan. Make no mistake, however, Catton's creation is all her own.
As The Rehearsal opens, it may be hard to follow as the dialogue is horribly pretentious, but once the reader realizes that some of the story (and in ways, all of it?) is acting, one may assume that this staged speech was the author's intent. Thus a big foray into false memory, lies, and truth unveils itself. It's all so expertly crafted with little clues here and there, sparks of witty dialogue that highlight the play within a play (and “all the world's a stage”). It's never clear—at least it wasn't to me—when you're reading the “truth” and when you're reading the “reenactment” of the “truth.” One can make assumptions such as that the truth opens the novel and everything that follows is a reinterpretation; or that all is fabrication that leads to the truth in the end; or that those scenes with the most pretentious dialogue are clearly staged and everything else is reality. But in the end, they're all assumptions. Only the author possibly knows the truth. For me, that's okay. From my many years of reviewing books, however, I've noticed that there are many readers who H A T E such ambiguity. I recall now another similar novel I loved that also blurred the lines without ever directly revealing the real truth: Heidi Julavits's The Uses of Enchantment. And guess how many one and two star ratings that novel has.
The Rehearsal is so multi-layered that it is on one hand confusing, on the other, brilliant. It's not the sort of novel that a reader should expect answers from; it's a novel that intends to confuse you and blow your mind. Despite its seemingly “light” plot synopsis, The Rehearsal is the foundation on which Catton is building her genius.
Catton's third novel, Birnam Wood, is scheduled to be published later this year: https://www.victoria.ac.nz/news/2017/...