THE REHEARSAL by Eleanor Catton (McClelland & Stewart), 316 pages, $29.99 cloth. Rating: NNNNN
A book as brainy as The Rehearsal usually doesn't have the emotional heft to match its smarts. But New Zealander Eleanor Catton's debut novel - I can't believe it's her first book - will make you gasp, think, laugh, wonder and then weep.
Set in two schools, one a girls' high school, the other a drama academy, on the surface it's about how those in both environments respond to the news that Victoria, one of the high school students, is having an affair with the male music teacher. She becomes an instant celebrity, and relationships at her school go through major changes. First-year students at the drama school plan to make the scandal the subject of their year-end production.
But you get the sense that all isn't exactly as it seems. What looks like dialogue might be mere thoughts, fantasies of what characters wish they could say. Some of the episodes are described with stage directions as if they're scenes in a play.
Are characters acting or are their encounters real? What's the meaning of performance? When is it all right to turn real-life stories to artistic purposes?
Amidst all this heady stuff, characters are experiencing real passion. Isolde, Victoria's sister, feels suddenly visible for all the wrong reasons. Drama student Stanley, who's discovering himself through the theatre, is falling in love with Isolde, not knowing her relationship to his production's theme.
Julia, a budding lesbian - maybe - feels attracted to Isolde. She and Isolde are students of a manipulative saxophone teacher, herself a thwarted dyke, who's trying to facilitate the connection between the two.
And the writing rocks. Catton's attention to detail is almost fetishistic - in a good way - and she gives literary weight to almost every gesture. Whole sections could stand on their own as profoundly insightful essays.
I haven't been this impressed with a debut fiction writer since Ann-Marie MacDonald released Fall On Your Knees.
This year's must-read.
Catton appears Saturday (June 12) with Michael Helm and Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall at the Isabel Bader as part of Luminato. See Readings.
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