Right from the opening of this book, I was arrested, and had to force myself to read slowly to savour the delicious language, intriguing storyline and enigmatic characters that comprised this first novel of talented New Zealander, Eleanor Catton.
The story describes the fallout of a sex-scandal in a teenage girls' school, but the description was neither clear-cut, nor one-sided, which was to the story's credit in that it mirrored the muddied reality of the event. The local acting academy take up the story as a project for production, and in the course of the novel, the lines become blurred between theatre and reality, so that often we are not sure which is which. This is an effective device to describe the confusion and turmoil that teenagers and young adults often grapple with, often exploring multiple personas through which to view the world.
There is a further subplot, which explores the life of the saxophone teacher, who is a dark and intriguing character, who often acts as a foil for her students. Her life is paradoxically explored through witholding direct information, and instead offering fragments of conversations with parents of her students, the students themselves and Patsy, a confidante with whom she had a very intimate relationship. In fact two of her students, Julia and Isolde, re-enact an episode from her past, their relationship mirroring that which herself and Patsy once had. The saxophone teacher comes across as a very powerful character, one who really sees, and who weilds a strong influence over her students. The intimacy of the one-to-one music lesson, acts almost like a therapy session, the body and voice of the saxophone offering a velvety, seductive atmosphere. The saxophone teacher reminded me of another memorable character from a novel by Paulo Coelho, that I read a few years ago: 'Eleven Minutes'. The character was the librarian, who, like 'the saxophone teacher', remained known just as, 'the librarian'. The librarian too acted as a foil and something of a confidante for the main character, and came across as mysterious and interesting.
The nearby acting academy has a crucial role in the novel in making 'public' the 'private' scandal, and in so doing, exposing the falsehood of public and private lives. The stage is a metaphor, often overused in day-to-day life, but one that is used to incredible effect here, and calling to question what we accept as reality versus reality itself.
This is a must-read novel, one that looks at truth from multiple perspectives, as the characters experience it, toy with it, avoid it and confront it.