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Themes of Illusion and Reality
on 9 April 2013
Eleanor Catton's first novel is a self-consciously postmodernist story, dealing with a group of young (and not so young) people involved in the arts in an unnamed city in an unnamed country (presumably, from a remark made about winter being warm and sunny, Catton's native New Zealand). Skipping about over time - this is not a chronological novel - Catton tells us two intertwined stories, constantly teasing us by suggesting that part of the narratives may not be real at all, but fantasies on the part of the author or her characters. A large part of the book deals with a scandal at the prestigious girls' school Abbey Grange, where one of the pupils, Victoria, is found to have been having an underage relationship with her music teacher Mr Saladin. Mr Saladin (who we only meet very briefly) is immediately suspended, Victoria is removed from school and the pupils all sent for counselling. Several of them, including Victoria's pretty 15-year-old sister Isolde, confide their thoughts about the situation to their charismatic saxophone teacher, a woman with a romantic secret of her own. The saxophone teacher responds to Isolde's confidences by trying to set up a friendship between her and the lonely, intelligent and anarchic Julia, a pupil in Victoria's year. But soon, this friendship is becoming more intense than the girls bargained for. Meanwhile another of the saxophone teacher's pupils, a quiet, plain girl, broods miserably on her own undesirability, while Victoria continues to fantasize about her banished lover, and the saxophone teacher rages at the mothers of the pupils she is teaching. This story runs side by side with the story of Stanley, an intelligent shy boy who wins a place to study at the prestigious Institute of the Arts as an actor, and his struggles during his first year to succeed. It is hard for a while to see how the stories are connected - until we see Stanley and Isolde meet, and realize that news of the Mr Saladin scandal has reached the drama school students, who see its dramatic potential. As a couple of other reviewers have pointed out, there is no dramatic finale when the two stories converge - the novel reaches some kind of conclusion, but almost fizzles out in its final chapter - there is no real resolution, the character simply continue life, and don't even seem to have learnt that much from their experiences.
While this novel contained some fine writing, certainly, I found it overall rather forced and pretentious in tone. The hopping about in terms of time, and the constant playing with Hidden Inner Meanings and the Themes of Illusion and Reality (all popular themes in modern literature) didn't for me add anything to the story. The really moving elements in the book, and the interesting ones - Stanley's work in his first year at drama school, Julia and Isolde's growing attraction, Victoria's genuine love for her teacher, Julia's individuality, Stanley's feelings about his family - were never allowed to develop, because Catton kept jumping topic, or making us question what 'really happened' and what was 'fantasy' or 'the students acting'. Like a lot of very young writers (Bidisha in the 1990s was just the same), Catton loads her text with similes and metaphors, and while some of these were striking, all too often they came across as precious or sometimes downright ridiculous - from the opening page where the clarinet is described as a 'black and silver sperm' or 'tadpole to the saxophone', I was aware that this was a book that would irritate me in places. I also, on a deeper level, found a lot of the characters implausible. I've never met a music teacher like the one described here, and couldn't believe a saxophone teacher would spend so much of her time discussing her pupil's private lives in lessons (a singing teacher maybe, but Catton has clearly chosen the saxophone because it is a 'cool' instrument). I also found the saxophone teacher a vile character, supercilious and cold. Neither could I believe that so many of the principal girl characters were learning the saxophone - I felt Julia, in particular, would have probably chosen a different instrument! I also thought that it was ridiculous that a group of drama students devising a play would simply take a local news story and use it without altering any of the names or changing the story at all. It seemed odd that Catton kept going on about Stanley's father, but never mentioned his mother (who he lived with) or stepfather - and he seemed oddly passive for someone who'd chosen an acting career. I also found the decision to not name any of the authority figures but simply call them 'The Head of Acting', 'The Head of Movement' 'The Saxophone Teacher' etc rather obvious, and alienating. And the overall message that came out of the book - that it's a dog-eat-dog world where kindly emotions are unlikely to survive, and those with genuine feelings are likely to suffer profoundly - was deeply depressing. All this was a shame as some of the writing about theatre, and about being at a girls' school was very promising. But I felt that overall this was a rather cold book, and rather pleased with its own cleverness. Not one of my top reads, though I'll be interested to see what Catton does next.