The characters of the novel are all performers – a saxophone teacher and her host of students, a drama student and his father who is really a one dimensional psychoanalyst, disturbed and disturbing. Each of them is affected by the scandal in one way or another, some directly but most, indirectly. The relationship is the nucleus around which all the other episodes of the story are wrapped layer upon layer, one play inside another, like a Russian Doll.
The reader is placed in the position of an audience member watching a play, or rather several interwoven plays at various stages of rehearsal, but a rehearsal for what? This line of thought could take us on a philosophical path, but as the novel offers no grand over arching conclusion, perhaps we shouldn’t continue, other than to say Eleanor Catton engages with the idea of performance, and how we are often cast to perform a role we wouldn’t necessarily choose for ourselves, with humour and confident creativity.
All this talk of characters may have mislead you. This novel isn’t a character based book. Mostly the characters are little more than shadows that pass across the page; characters in a play script you are reading rather than watching, without much flesh or personality. This isn’t a criticism of the book. The novel doesn’t suffer in any way due to the reserved character studies. In fact, I think this aspect makes the book because it allows the ideas of identity and relationships to shine, and the words to dominate, which, in the words of Emily Perkins, ‘makes language seem new’:
The overhead lights have dimmed and she is lit only by a pale flicking blue, a frosty sparkle like the on–off glow of a TV screen. The saxophone teacher is thrust into shadow so half her face is iron grey and the other half is pale and glinting.
(read a longer excerpt)
Eleanor Catton is an exciting new writer and I'm already looking forward to her next book.
Posted by Hannah