Mostly, in the week before delivering a festival of words built on a rather boring bedrock of logistics, I read emails (tornadoes of them!), spreadsheets, and Google Docs. If Google Docs were counted as shared assets, co-director Antonia Hayes and I would pretty much be married.
But somewhere in between all these crunchy details, I find the time to dip into Eleanor Catton’s debut novel The Rehearsal. It’s an apt choice in many ways. Firstly, it happens to be the chosen read for the festival’s book club event, which was a totally handy coincidence (swear!). Secondly, it’s a novel by a super-young, over-achieving author who probably would’ve been a National Young Writers’ Festival regular had she lived in Australia (she’s from New Zealand). And lastly, because it so cleverly captures that time before ‘real life’ begins—adolescence as a ‘rehearsal’ for the big stage of the world.
The Rehearsal is a duplicitous novel that folds a high school sex scandal into the travails of an experimental acting institute. There is no time and place—only ‘Thursday’ and ‘October’—so in the fuzziness you feel this could be your school, your memories. The language is florid and the conversations often delivered as heavy-handed monologues. Much like when I was a teenager, spouting mini-Satreisms over port wine, the characters in this book are inward-looking, self-important, clumsy and unformed.
This year is the festival’s sweet 16th, so it’s had all of us nostalgically revisiting our youths: the awkwardness, the discovery, the sickeningly sweet alco-pops and the scuffed Doc Martens. I am compiling a playlist of songs released the year I trussed myself in lime green chiffon and Maxi Taxied it to a large, gaudy room where my lumbering date was crowned Year 10 Formal King along with the prettiest girl in the grade (not me). It’s alarming how old the songs seem, the quality like a photo that’s been printed out and blurred in the rain.
Written when Catton was only 22, the book went on to be picked up by Granta, shortlisted for an Orange Award and win the Betty Trask Award. Since then Catton has come to fame for being the youngest-ever nominee for a Man Booker Prize for her 800-plus-page chunk of historical suspense, The Luminaries. She’s now 28, younger than me, and obviously way more successful—it’s difficult to imagine she ever suffered the crippling self-doubt ofThe Rehearsal’s protagonist Stanley, or the desperate lameness of the ill-fated Bridget. It’s also unlikely she was ever left on the side of a dance-floor as her date four-stepped beneath disco lights.
I forgive her though as she takes me back to my own chubby-cheeked rehearsal, and away from an accordion of browser tabs.
Angela Bennetts is Co-Director of the National Young Writers’ Festival which starts this Thursday 3rd October in Newcastle.