First off, I’ve been thinking about how a very positive or a very negative review affects my reading. Something that gets a negative review makes me cautious of reading it (for example some people on the Guardian complained a while back that Sea of Poppies was very difficult to read, so I let a copy of it on the library sale table float by me), even if later someone else reviews it positively (as Eva of A Striped Armchair has just done for Sea of Poppies, calling it an ‘India’s answer to Wilkie Collins’.) On the other hand, even positive reviews are not without a downside…. for me at least. I read a book someone else has glowingly recommended and I like it. But I don’t love it forever. Would I have liked it more if I’d found it on my own, without already thinking it of someone else’s book of the year is what I wonder. I feel a bit detached when I read on a recommendation, where an internal debate goes on inside: do I like it as much as they did? Why or why not? How do I say anything unique about it? Rather than simply engaging with the sheer pleasure of the book itself.
I thought these things as I read The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, but at the same time, I was sucked into the writing from the first page and read it in two days, which is unusually quick for me and contemporary fiction. Not only is the writing exceptionally imaginative and unique, but as someone who’s studied some acting, theatre history, playwrighting, etc I loved the life as performance metaphor she used throughout the book. The whole book has a very theatrical feel to it, scenes where you don’t know if they are being acted or if they are ‘real’, where stage directions and lighting cues are given in the middle of what had seemed a normal music lesson, where characters openly say what they think in something more like dramatic soliloquy than normal conversation. My coming to the theatre was the first time I felt a part of a true community, standing backstage watching the show, waiting for an entrance, whispering to friends, changing together in one large and messy dressing room… I’m no longer a part of that world, but I love books that recreate it for me (A.S. Byatt’s The Virgin in the Garden is one that combines history and theatre to beautiful effect).
But despite my pleasure in the theatre references, no finished performance is shown in the book (that was a disappointment, as I love to relive the dramatic thrill of performance through reading about it). It is all a rehearsal towards an unfinished play, towards life.
‘Mrs Bly,’ she says, “remember that these years of your daughter’s life are only the rehearsal for everything that comes after. Remember that it’s in her best interests for everything to go wrong. It’s in her best interests to slip up now, while she’s still safe in the Green Room with the shrouded furniture and the rows of faceless polystyrene heads and the cracked and dusty mirrors and the old papers scudding across the floor. Don’t wait until she’s out in the savage white light of the floods, where everyone can see.
The other fascinating way the theatrical metaphor is used in the book is to examine the way character and personality differ or stay the same as everyone else, emphasizing how the mothers of the teens can all be seen as interchangeable, as one actor playing all the parts, how girls in the first year of acting school, too young yet to play women, are all auditioning for the same “beautiful… glossy and svelte” role, while “the boys were here to audition for ten different character parts”. She shows how self definition is still in flux in the teen years and how everyone jostles so hard not only to fit in, but also to achieve a unique role within the group.
… each student was carefully carving out a place within the context of the group: those who variously wanted to be thought of as comic or tragic or eccentric or profound began to mark out their territory, fashioning little shorthand epithets for themselves and staking claim to a particular personality type so that none of the others would have a chance. … The other students all said, ‘Ester is so funny!’ and ‘Michael is so bad!’, and just like that each won the double security of becoming both a person and a type.
Stanley wasn’t sure what marked him out as a person. He hung back at the beginning of the year and let the other boys claim the roles of the leader and the player and the clown, watching with a kind of uncertain awe as they worked to recruit admirers and an audience. He guessed he wanted to be thought of as sensitive and thoughtful, but he didn’t pursue the branding actively enough and soon those positions were taken. He found himself thoroughly eclipsed by several of the more ambitiously moody boys, boys who were studied in the way they tossed their hair off their forehead, thin boys with paperback copies of Nietzsche nosing out of their satchels, boys wearing self-conscious forlorn looks, permanently anxious and always slightly underfed. Whenever these boys began to speak, the class would peel back respectfully to listen.
This notion of branding yourself, your personality, is seriously discussed by serious bloggers, anxious to capture the necessary audience. But even without that oh so capitalist terminology, as if we were all just a product and an advertisement for the product all in one (I’m sure I’ve read that somewhere recently, maybe this book?), this striving to find a unique role within the group is something I remember and as I said at the beginning, something I still wonder about. Will I rave about this book as others have done, I wondered, or assert my individuality by pointing out all its minor flaws that somehow let me down?
When a roommate of mine who was also in the same acting program as me introduced me to Jane Austen, she endlessly raved over Colin Firth (she also ended up taking a role and a boy that I’d wanted — there is a camaraderie in acting, but also a great deal of competition especially between similar types of people, all up for the same roles. The same goes for life in any group…) Not to be completely outdone and despite liking Pride and Prejudice just as much as every other old fashioned romantic idealist at heart, I focused my attention and admiration more strictly on Jane Austen herself and on the sarcastic humourous rational side of her, rather than the much raved over romantic bits. (I grew up with a sister I was closely and unfavourably compared to, hence my deep desire for some individuality in my interests, a semblance that I’m not like everyone else.)
Hence my questions. Would I have liked this book more if I’d found it first, if it was just me and the book in a private dialogue instead of me and the book and all its other fans? Maybe yes. But then I might have simply overlooked it and never known. All I can say is, it’s a amazing new way of writing that Eleanor Catton has developed, infusing prose with new life through the language of the theatre and it’s a fascinating character study of the way teachers interact with and attempt to influence students, the way girls feed off secrets… ahh, if any of this has at all peaked your interest or even curiosity, read it, it’s one of the best new books out there.