Lessons by Ian McEwan

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Review by Julie Barham  

Ian McEwan’s output is made up of a great variety of types of novels, going from the specific to the general, and sometimes back again. He has a stunning ability to catch something of the age in his portraits of individuals; flawed and self-aware.

How easy it was to drift through an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events.

Roland Baines’ life has many fascinating aspects as related in this superbly written book. It reveals the pinpoint detail of his life as well as the big world events that shape things around him, the reactions he feels to things that seem out of his control, his actions that set his life and that of others on a particular path. It is a sort of life story, though it rarely travels in a straight line; like memories it goes off down pathways, way-marked by letters and notes on occasions, but often it takes the form of returning to events, considering them in the light of present knowledge. It is incredible in its details, of the interiors of buildings, especially homes. It is a book peopled by Roland, but also by a teacher, a wife, a baby and others who seem to enter the stage for a section, then fall back into the background.

I found this book an intense reading experience, in which Roland is in the foreground, but others are given room for their stories, and events roll around. These circumstances are sometimes world changing, others just challenge Roland’s world. Some are expected, some are almost surreal. A world recovering from War, with all that implies, questions of bravery and separation, becomes the dangerous peace of a Cold War which suddenly becomes real. The pain of the Iron Curtain’s effects on people is so well expressed in relation to Germany that the Fall of the Wall seems almost personal. Climate change, even Covid, are seen through eyes of fear and some understanding, while the realities of Brexit linger in the background. This book brilliantly combines the personal with the political, the massive with the mundane, as Roland learns that there are many lessons in life to be learnt. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this big book in every sense. 

The book begins with an eleven-year-old boy, who has already had a complex life, going through a piano lesson with a young teacher who is unexpectedly reactive to his playing. She makes demands on him that go beyond what is to an extent already seen as a precocious talent, but he takes this as one more thing he cannot understand in a strange school existence. His mother is far away, but it seems that she cannot protect him – his dominant father sees to that. He is essentially vulnerable, and Miriam will go on to teach him and leave scars that cannot be left behind. The scene shifts to a house in London twenty-five years later, when new father Roland is abandoned by his wife, left to look after a seven month old baby, Lawrence, with no preparation and little understanding. A note solidifies the abandonment, the pain, and while the State grudgingly gives him a little money, the police are interested in a man whose wife has disappeared. This is especially the case when an officer finds a scribbled line of poetry which may suggest a woman’s death. It is only gradually that the reference becomes clear, as Roland’s memories of a curtailed formal education is explored, and his efforts to fill the perceived gaps – the courses of reading, the travels melt into the friendships, the relationships. Politics becomes personal when he encounters the realities of a divided Germany, and the endless debates about the government that pervade the dinners and drinks of friends and acquaintances. Still, there are questions, of women who he has been close to, of men who often challenge him. Memories, passions and sheer luck meld together to provide an unforgettable portrait of a life illustrated by reality. 

This book is not only engaging, it is also immersive as Roland’s life story expands on the page. Like real life it does not run in straight lines; there are always considerations of others, of the what ifs, of the effects of decisions that he has taken, that others around him take, that are made on a global stage. The standout section for me concerns the fall of the Wall in Berlin in late 1989, when history is reduced to accident, to assumptions about people, when life changes forever in some ways, but also continues in others. This is a book that instantly becomes memorable, and I recommend it to those who are interested in life as it was actually lived by some in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond.

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Julie blogs at Northern Reader 

Ian McEwan, Lessons (Vintage paperback, 2023). 978-1529116311, 485 pp..

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