Book review: The Rehearsal

by Eleanor Catton Granta, 317pp, £12.99Review by TOM ADAIR

AS DEBUTS GO, THIS ONE IS ASTRAL – as well as teasing, intelligent and knowing. It made me think of Bonjour Tristesse (1955) and of its author,Franoise Sagan, another young writer of stellar talent, most of the rest of whose career was a disappointing fall to earth.

With Eleanor Catton we cannot yet tell, but this, her downpayment, her first salute to posterity's judgment, brings us a world of richly embellished imagination. What "happens" – or seems to happen – is true, but never real.

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There is a story of sorts – but the "how" is more important than the "what". And it fulfils the quest as stated in the novel's final paragraph when one character says to another: "I'd be happy if you told me just enough ... so I could imagine it. So I could recreate it for myself. So I could imagine that I was really there."

The Rehearsal captures the heart of "there" – focused on the story of a 15-year-old student who has a relationship with a male teacher. The teacher is outcast; the student too becomes an object of scandal and mystery. Her fellow students are aflutter. Among them is Julia, the novel's sceptic, with her metaphysical yearning for the "victim's" young sister Isolde.

Isolde is lured by Julia's charms, but she forms an attachment also to Stanley, a first-year drama student beset by his lecturers' theories about the stage: "Masks or faces: which do we wear? There's always this doubleness at play," he's told. "You and the character you are playing both have to be transparent." But transparency is not what this novel's about. Most of its cards are played face down.

An unnamed saxophone teacher also bestrides the story. She reaps the rewards of her colleague's misconduct. Mothers bring their pliant daughters to be tutored. The teacher of saxophone is a gargoyle, a sphinx, a gossip, a spidery presence spinning her own astute philosophy. Her outlandishness is one of the novel's treats. She opens its pages with a catcall: "The clarinet is tadpole to the sax … a black and silver sperm, and if you love this sperm very much it will one day grow into a saxophone."

She pictures the motley crew of daughters attached to their mothers for whom she evinces a blatant contempt: "If you turned on your heel very fast your children would fan out around you like a sunburst pleated skirt. You would be a goddess in a corset and a bustle." Here in a sentence Angela Carter meets Sheena Mackay. The sax teacher doubles as the novel's wildcat joker, its queen of spades.

Catton's revelry is infectious. She brings the saxophone students together with the young actors. Each puts on a final performance as the narrative converges. The students of drama decide to portray the tale of the scandal: a web of dubious supposition. Stanley, it seems, has a leading part. Which must impinge on his chances of cutting it with Isolde, virgins all.

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Time is fluid: sometimes the tale moves back and forth, sometimes proceeding day by day (the world of saxophony), or month by month (in the cosmos of drama). Catton anatomises brilliantly the psychology of youth, its sexual mores, its posing pretentiousness, its worries, its bravado. The world of adults is shown with its foibles, its nostalgia, its self-vaunting musings.

Among the lightweight issues raised (I list them randomly) are the difference between sincerity and truth, the mismatch between who we'd like to be and the self we come to inhabit, power imbalance in relationships between siblings, the function of shock as expressed in art – and sexuality, how it discovers itself, how it grows.

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These matters are magnified yet held distant, enabling Catton to keep us engaged, while reinforcing the sense of distance between the reader's world and the characters'. She does dialogue – street smart or stylised, with equal aplomb, gives the characters subtle transcendence whilst also shifting them through a room and out the door without you remarking on technique. She can capture a mood, paint a setting, and squeeze a relationship through the eye of a single sentence with seeming ease. So much accomplishment carried so lightly. And she also does feelings, despite what certain critics have stated: Isolde's soliloquy towards the end is a tour de force with a lump in its throat that gave me the shivers.

• Eleanor Catton is at the Edinburgh book festival on Saturday, 15 August

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