Review: Lessons

4 stars
A reflection on choice and circumstance

In British author Ian McEwan’s 2016 novel Nutshell, the protagonist is a precocious fetus, who shares his observations about the drama unfolding outside the womb and ruminates about the human condition. The conceit sometimes serves a stand-in for the author to hold forth about subjects dear to his heart.

McEwan’s latest work, Lessons, takes the more honest approach of blending fiction and autobiography. The main character, Roland Baines, is the author’s alter ego, with a point of departure in his teenage years that leads to a quite different life.

The road not traveled

McEwan was born in 1948; his father rose to the rank of Major in the British military after World War II, and young Ian spent parts of childhood in Libya, Singapore and Germany. He has described his father as a “hard-drinking man, quite terrifying”.

In Lessons, he processes these experiences by describing childhood episodes in Roland’s life, focusing on moments in Tripoli that give Roland a hunger for the elusive and the extraordinary.

After Roland is shipped to boarding school back in England, an encounter with a piano teacher (not based on any actual person) pushes him down a road the author never traveled.

As a young man, Roland becomes a drifter, avoiding career and family until the 1980s. Then he falls in love with Alissa, whose life is similarly unmoored, and who harbors dreams of becoming a novelist. Soon enough, Alissa gives birth to their son, Lawrence. A child might anchor them both—but Alissa decides that she has other plans.

Unfolding history

In McEwan’s narrative, we jump back and forth in time—to the 1950s, the 1980s, the 1940s—only to eventually find ourselves in the present day, when Baines tries to make sense of his untidy life story. Historical events like the White Rose resistance against the Nazis, the Chernobyl disaster and the fall of the Berlin Wall provide a momentous backdrop to the much smaller scale events at the heart of the story.

This is a story that rejects the notion that narratives must offer closure. It encourages the reader to reflect on the past and future points of departure in their own lives. It is also metafiction, in which Alissa’s decision to “raid her past” in order to craft her own novels is contrasted with McEwan’s choice to do the same.

I often find myself frustrated when authors jump between timelines, or nest flashbacks within flashbacks. McEwan manages to bridge the decades without leaving the reader bewildered or lost. That’s in large part thanks to his mastery in setting a scene and bringing characters to life. Opening a random page, here is a description of Alissa’s father:

Heinrich’s manner and convictions were remote from Roland’s but he warmed to the older man, who wore a tie at all times and sat stiffly upright in even the softest chairs. He was an active member of the Christian Democratic Union, a lay reader in the local church and had given his life to the law as it impacted on the lives of farmers in the surrounding countryside. He approved strongly of Ronald Reagan and believed that Germany needed a figure like Mrs. Thatcher. And yet he thought rock and roll was good for what he grandly called the “general project of happiness".” He didn’t mind men with long hair or hippies so long as they caused no harm to others, and he thought that homosexual men and women should be left in peace to live their lives as they wished.

In a recent interview, McEwan described his approach to writing the book. For key events in Roland’s life, McEwan intentionally avoided thinking about what Roland would do, until the time finally came to write it. When Roland rings the doorbell to his piano teacher’s home later in life, the author rings it with him. Perhaps it’s this approach that makes Lessons feel lifelike, both engrossing and anticlimactic.

The Verdict

Roland Baines appears to share McEwan’s liberal politics, leading Jacobin to call Lessons “a centrist agitprop novel”. In truth, Roland’s views of the world are too disjointed and incoherent to turn him into an effective advocate for any particular political position.

With Lessons, the aging author has written a kind of secular, intergenerational homily, which readers may find bland, edifying, or—in my case—both. The lessons the book conveys most successfully are between the lines, in the highs and lows of Roland’s life.

I found the book more engaging than Nutshell and Machines Like Me, but it lacks the dramatic payoff of McEwan’s finest work (Atonement). If you have enjoyed any of the author’s other works, I would definitely recommend it.