Book review – Lessons by Ian McEwan
© Steven Boykey Sidley
I take back everything thing I said about this book. I said those things when I stuttered and stumbled through the first half of this near 500-page book for over a month – a few pages here, a few pages there, occasionally and reluctantly amidst distractions elsewhere – Netflix, podcasts, holiday gatherings and my iPhone screen.
So I said some things. The narrative doesn’t know where it is going, I said. The author (certainly one of my most favoured authors for decades), is spinning off on tangents that don’t move the story forward, I said. I can’t discern the characters’ motivations or cares, I said.
But the fault was mine. One cannot read a book this multi-layered piecemeal. It does violence to the authorial voice and neglects the web of people and their history. Perhaps one can dart scattershot into and out of a simpler, more linear yarn. But not for a book such as this, the work of the UK’s most accomplished and eclectic of literary authors.
So when I finally knuckled down and read the final half of the book over concentrated span of a week or so I finally submitted, quietly narcotised by the lifelong story of a unremarkable man, Roland Baines.
The book, set mainly in the England (and some in Germany) starts off with 2 seminal events that occur in Roland’s life (I am not spoiling here, these events come early).
The first occurs while Roland is an 11-year-old lonely and awkward student at an English boarding school in the country. He is a startlingly talented piano student with a possible concert-playing career in his future Until he is fondled and then romantically and erotically imprisoned (quite literally) by his school piano teacher, a beautiful young woman 15 years his senior.
And then a fast-forward to some 20 years later. He wakes up to find his German-born wife, the daughter of anti-Nazi activists during WWII, gone. Without word or trace. Leaving him and his toddler to struggle on alone, abandoned and bewildered.
From these two events come the title of the book. Lessons and their effect on his life. The piano lessons and robbing of his sexual innocence, and the lessons inflicted by his abandonment by a wife whom he loves and who professed to love him and their child.
The book darts back and forward though time.It delves into parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, adoptions, bosses, marriages, divorces and deaths of multiple characters. And true to McEwan’s voice (and one of the reasons why I am so drawn to him), the story is splattered with the politics and worlds events of his time, which, in this case, spans 70 years – a fertile canvas on which his characters (and the author) opine and comment and argue without ever getting nearer the truth about anything.
Roland Baines is not a hero, his finer qualities dampened by circumstance. He is, in many ways (and in his own mind), a failure. And yet his life is crammed full of both the painful and pleasurable events that will resonate with any reader, the arbitrary nature of happenstance and our near paralysis in the face of decisions great and small. One of the characters, a feted author now near the end of her life, explodes angrily at someone she cares for, who accuses her of historical cruelty and betrayal – ‘life is messy, we all make mistakes, because we are all fucking stupid’.
Lessons, is, above all, about a life in all its ordinariness and extraordinariness. It is about missing chances, being battered by the wind, fucking up, making amends, regretting and forgetting, getting older and even perhaps even dying without ever being able to answer the all-important question of why. But not Roland, who in the final moving few pages gets a glimpse of why, simply and beautifully drawn.
And so if do you read it, do it with intent and without pause. Then you won’t have to take anything back like I did.