Lessons – Ian McEwan


Chosen by Jodie

In a type of anti-memoir, McEwan has created Roland, a character who has lived the same years as him, observed the same global events and pondered the same questions about humanity and society. Roland has even lived in some of the same locations and been involved in some of the same circles.

However, McEwan does point out that some of the more dramatic events of the novel are pure fiction: primarily the grooming and sexual assault of Roland by an older female piano teacher at his boarding school. Occurring in the open pages, this event, unsurprisingly, has a flow on effect to the rest of Roland’s life, influencing his interactions with people, decisions he makes and what becomes of him.

Lessons details many historic events such as World War II, the Berlin Wall, Chernobyl, the Cold War and Covid. It demonstrates how cyclic events can be and how we are constantly alternating between fear and optimism in regard to the future. Yet it is the reaction and interactions Roland and the other characters have with these events that shape and document them and provide the true lessons.

When Roland’s wife leaves him and their son in order to become Europe’s next biggest thing in literature, Roland’s musings and life directions interplay with the timing of global events.

By what logic or motivation or helpless surrender did we all, hour by hour, transport ourselves within a generation from the thrill of optimism at Berlin’s falling Wall to the storming of the American Capitol?

● It was interesting to discover the correlations between the lives of McEwan and the protagonist Roland Bains. This novel spanned Roland’s life over 70 years exploring the mix of personal experiences and historical forces that shaped his life. The first part of the novel, navigating through Roland’s childhood and relationship with his piano teacher, was quite enthralling. I enjoyed McEwan’s unrushed writing style. However, as the novel progressed I became a little unengaged. I found Lessons more character driven than plot driven, which is fine, but difficult when you find the protagonist a little boring. – Jodie

● To me, Lessons felt like a return to the Ian McEwen of old. The considered depth applied to understanding characters, in particular to children and their vulnerabilities; his engagement with global humanities and his intelligent and artful styling of phrases made me feel right at home. I liked Roland, for all his blandness and passivity. I felt like he was a vehicle from which we were able to observe and consider world events and the captivating people (both good and bad) who fell in and out of his life. I wouldn’t recommend this to a McEwan virgin but after Atonement and The Child In Time, this would be a good reading companion. – Rachel

● While there were many passages in Lessons that I found gripping there were also those that felt forced and laboured. It was an enjoyable read but the urgency and drive that I loved in McEwan’s previous novels just wasn’t there for me. Perhaps this is reflective of the author’s stage of life and the languid nature of lockdown where apparently he did most of his writing. If someone is looking for a McEwan recommendation you can’t go past Atonement – diving straight into Lessons would not give a reader a true representation of this author’s brilliance. – Suzy

● Parts of this story were truly captivating and psychologically stimulating to me for some time after: the disturbing sexual relationship between our protagonist and his teacher, an absconding wife and mother and her continued rejection of her son, and dark family secrets. However, all these absorbing tales were interspersed with lengthy and mostly boring stretches of self reflection from Roland. As such, it felt like a long chore to read at times which is a shame as other parts were really brilliant. Not a great introduction to Ian McEwen for me, as I know he is considered one of the greats. – Jo


Published 2022
Knopf Publishing Group
448 pages

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