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The Rehearsal, By Eleanor Catton

A journey through the teenage ego

Anyone who has had a half-decent adolescence remembers the moments in those fevered years when you felt as if you were living out a film or a novel. Every encounter had the potential to be a plot hinge, every thought an epiphany. To put all this into a novel or a film is a tricky business. Take the adolescent at their own estimation, and you end up with self-aggrandising twaddle; keep your distance, and you're left with a stroppy teenager.

New Zealander 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.

She sets The Rehearsal in the heightened atmosphere of drama school, private music lessons and a girls' high school recovering from the scandal of a pupil-teacher affair. That pupil was Victoria, but it is her younger sister, 15-year-old Isobel, who is one of the foci, along with Stanley, a drama student. Catton watches them with the merciless eye of a young Muriel Spark. In Stanley's class, "each student was carefully carving out a place with the context of the group: those who variously wanted to be thought of as comic or tragic or eccentric or profound began to mark out their territory". Isobel, meanwhile, has to endure the interminable counselling sessions that follow her sister's "fall", as well as the concern of her peers.

Towering over these vulnerable, emergent personalities are four larger-than-life adults: Stanley's mostly absent father, a psychiatrist fond of paedophilia jokes; the heads of acting and movement at the Drama Institute; and Isobel's saxophone teacher. The teacher is a brilliant, Jean Brodie-ish creation who encourages Isobel into an affair with one of her female pupils.

The Rehearsal is no rehearsal. It's a supremely confident piece of writing, and although the dryness of its characters and lack of real plot may put some readers off, the clarity of its thought and language make it a definite contender for debut of the year.