Lessons by Ian McEwan
This is Ian McEwan’s seventeenth novel and has become known as his pandemic novel and also his baby boomer novel (as much as I hate that term it is accurate here). Lessons is a meandering journey of a novel where McEwan returns to his beloved subject of the contemporary middle-class Englishman. And he does this so well.
We follow the life of Roland Baines as he drifts through a seemingly passive life over eight decades. Roland never seems to take charge of his life and we wonder if this is his lassitude, his desire never to hurt others or his belief that something better is just around the corner. It is perhaps all three.
The course of Roland’s life seems be set by two events. The first is the feeling of unfettered freedom. His army father is serving in post-war Libya and the families are evacuated to an airfield camp during the Suez crisis. For the first time Roland is unsupervised and runs wild and free with the other boys. Roland’s longing to recapture this feeling remains throughout his life. Is it to his detriment?
In the norms of his class and its aspirations, Roland is sent two-thousand miles away to boarding school in England and here he begins piano lessons. And they are lessons indeed. His teacher is the beautiful, rosewater-scented Miriam who pinches him and kisses him and invites him to her house for tea. It takes two years for Roland to accept the invitation. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, fourteen-year-old Roland is determined not to die before he has experienced sex and so bicycles off to Miriam. Here begins a two-year period of sexual obsession for both. McEwan is the master of writing about adolescent sexual obsession. The adult Roland tries to recapture those years of sexual ecstasy and thus leaves lover after lover when the relationship begins to pall. Has Miriam ruined his life?
This novel is a biography of the feckless Roland but also a biography of England from the ‘50s to the present and how national and world events shape and change us. McEwan takes a drifting Roland and his reader through Chernobyl, the AIDS crisis, Thatcherism, Iraq, Brexit and the pandemic. We are transported from the optimism at the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War to Trumpism and the storming of the Capitol Building.
There are indeed many lessons in this wonderful novel about our times and what we have or haven’t learnt.