Interesting in several ways. The main settings are a drama college and a saxophone teacher's room. Nearby are an all-male and an all-female school. There's a clash of generations and genders (contrasted by inter-generational and lesbian relationships), social roles vs personal problems, and especially performance vs improvisation vs rehearsing. The real is described as if it's acting and v.v.. Intimate moments are made public in drama workshops or group-counselling sessions. The task of establishing and maintaining a role in social situations is mirrored on the stage.
All this is managed with wit and verve. Early on, a Mrs Henderson has a chat with her daughter's prospective saxophone teacher. Then
At five there is another knock. The saxophone teacher opens the door|
'Mrs Winter,' she says. 'You've come about your daughter. Come in and we'll discuss carving her into half-hour slices to feed me week by week.'
She holds the door wide so Mrs Winter can scuttle in. It's the same woman as before, just with a different costume - Winter not Henderson. Some other things are different too, before the woman is a professional and she has thought about the role for a long time. Mrs Winter smiles with only half her mouth, for example. Mrs Winter keeps nodding a few seconds too long. Mrs Winter inhales quietly through her teeth when she is thinking.
They both politely pretend not to notice that it is the same woman as before.
'To start off with,' says the saxophone teacher as she hands her a mug of black-leaf tea, 'I don't allow parents to sit in on private lessons (p.9)
What's going on here? It's early in the book, so there are various possibilities. Although later the drama students are send into town "in character", in this scene the acting's all in the teacher's mind. She's seeing the mothers as minor variations of the same template. The teacher's already been shown to be rather wacky and, like the drama tutor tutors who appear later, full of pretentious theories about art and self. People are actors, performing themselves and assessing their effect. But there's the serious matter of the jazz teacher having an affair with a schoolgirl, Victoria, and how the girl's schoolmates and her sister Isolde react - with envy, curiosity, etc.
- "The counsellor smiles approvingly as she enters, showing them all that he is terribly proud of her, in the way that one might be terribly proud of a mascot or a flag", p.51
- "Isolde wears her own face like it is a fashion accessory that she knows looks better on everyone else", p.52
- "The girls look her up and down, and marvel with a collective disgusted fascination. Their expression is the expression of any popular girl who takes time to regard an unpopular girl while she is speaking. They watch Julia as if she is a carnival act: intriguing, but it might make you feel a little sick", p.54
- "She speaks with the unrequited prerogative of an older sister's demand for the whole truth. As the elder, Victoria's perspective on her little sister's life is always that of a recent veteran, knowing and qualified and unshockable", p.56
A new character, Stanley, appears. His estranged father's a psychologist. Stanley goes to a drama school audition, passes.
- "The Head of Movement said, 'You cannot mime what you don't understand. You cannot penetrate death, or God, or a woman. To attempt any of these things is to aim for sincerity rather than truth. Sincerity is not enough for students of this Institute. Sincerity is a word for hawkers and salesmen and hacks. Sincerity is a device, and we do not deal in devices here.'", p.70
- "It was that female art of multi-tasking, [Stanley] would conclude, that witchy capacity that girls possessed, that allowed them to retain dual and triple threads of attention at once. Girls could distinguish between themselves and the performance of themselves, between the form and the substance. This double-handed knack, this perpetual duality, meant that any one girl was both an advertisement and a product at any one time", (p.77)
If you don't find that kind of writing funny or at least interesting, I suspect you'll struggle with the book. And there's more -
- "You and the character you are playing both have to be transparent. You have to look through the one to see the other. That is why being an actor is such a difficult job. It really is you up there" p.136
- "'So you chose this fate for your daughter,' the saxophone teacher continues. 'You pushed her towards the instrument of her undoing. You could have had a daughter who played the violin, long-haired and eccentric and quietly confident, but you chose the saxophone. You made that choice.'" p.153
- "'I enjoyed your performance last week,' the saxophone teacher says when Julia arrives. 'Your performance of the ride home after the concert" p.197
There are descriptive passages that would work in any novel - e.g. "the drummer dropping down to a one-handed beat for a couple of bars as he reaches over to take a drink from a sweaty beaded glass of beer, golden under the tasselled fringe of a lamp" (p.191) but sometimes the text becomes more theoretical -
|Once, a long time ago, you could probably bite your lip and it would mean, I am almost overcome with desiring you. Now you bite your lip and it means, I want you to see that I am almost overcome with desiring you, so I am using the plainest and most universally accepted signal I can think of to make you see. Now it means, Both of us know the implications of my biting my lip and what I am trying to say. We are speaking a language, you and I together, a language that we did not invent, a language that is not unique to our uttering. We are speaking someone else's lines. It's a comfort p.198|
Social dynamics are investigated -
- "The girls at Abbey Grange are forever defining each other, tenderly and savagely and sometimes out of spite" p.200
- "One of the girls got up. Like any girl who tries to play a grown man, her performance was disproportionate and slightly embarrassing" p.218
- "'there always has to be an age difference at the beginning. With same-sex relationships. It's an initiation rite. You need an inequality of experience or you never get anywhere" p.250
- "a woman's choice of another woman might be a free choice in and of itself, not a handicapped pick of second-bests, not a halved choice of remainders once the men have all been censored and removed" p.297
In addition, people project themselves onto others, and channel others. The complications of drama overlaying reality come to a head when a putative volunteer who comes on stage is attacked, and again later when the students choose, as the theme of their end of year play, the recent sex scandal. Stanley in particular is upset by this. For him it's not just a game.
Sections are headed by a day of the week or a month. For example, chapter 14 begins with sections entitled successively "October" "Saturday" "October" "Saturday" "October" "Saturday" "Saturday" "October" "October" "September". This helps with chronology. The register shifts that are noticed by the critics are exemplified by this passage -
The sax teacher looks small against the wasteland of the stage. Behind her the Steinway grand is sheathed like a vast canvas-covered tombstone fallen backwards and left to die.|
'I'd like to pay a tribute to one of my students,' the saxophone teacher says, 'a lank and wilted student who died this year, hit by a car on her bicycle as she was coming home from the late shift at work.'
The room is deathly quiet at once.
'For a long time I have tried without success to see Bridget's death as a tragedy p.315
The teacher's comments seem crass, though as puzzling is the use of "tombstone", "late" and "deathly quiet".
- Justine Jordan (Guardian) (smart, playful and self-possessed, it has the glitter and mystery of the true literary original. Though its impulses and methods can only be called experimental, the prose is so arresting, the storytelling so seductive, that wherever the book falls open it's near-impossible to put down. ... As well as darting about chronologically, the narrative makes surprising leaps in register and tone, so that characters speak in a mixture of world-weary teenspeak, pitch-perfect realism, and mannered theatricality, sometimes within the same scene. ... it could have been precious at best, pretentious at worst, but Catton uses these jarring registers to shocking, funny and poignant effect)
- Adam Ross (New York Times) (There’s plenty to enjoy here, including Catton’s keen insights into high school’s herd mentality and the remarkable set pieces in which the young actors are put through the paces by their tutors. It doesn’t always come off. Catton can lapse into preciousness, and she has a drama-killing tendency to interpolate herself when the wonderful moments she’s constructed should be left alone. The play is the thing, after all. But this young author is astonishingly talented, and her writing can steal any scene.)
- Lucy Beresford (Telegraph) (The most compelling character is an emotionally manipulative saxophone teacher. Her waspish awareness of the human capacity for self-delusion provides the novel’s darkest undercurrent as she attempts to orchestrate the love lives of two of her pupils to repair her own thwarted lesbian impulses. ... Catton’s prose style, which likes to link three adjectives in a way which starts as smart and self-aware and anchoring, but which quickly becomes repetitive and annoying and (as you can see) infectious. Without them, the narrative, with its clever borrowing of stagecraft such as soliloquies and stage directions, would really swing. )
- Jonathan Gibbs (Independent) (Eleanor Catton's masterstroke in this remarkable first novel is to immerse herself in the psychological hall of mirrors that is the teenage mind, but to apply an anthropological precision to what she finds there.)