Ian McEwan returns with the masterful book ‘Lessons’


“Lessons,” by Ian McEwan (Alfred A. Knopf)

“Roland occasionally reflected on the events and accidents, personal and global, small and significant, that had shaped and determined his existence.” The one sentence in Ian McEwan’s new novel, “Lessons,” sums up the book nicely.

When we first meet Roland Baines, he is a new parent struggling to raise his son alone. The news is filled with ominous headlines about a cloud of radiation drifting from Chernobyl towards Britain. His wife, we are told, has “disappeared”. There is a detective in the house asking questions. Is Roland a suspect? From there we are swept back in time to Roland’s upbringing in Libya with a strict father and a mother who cowered in front of him. When the family flees from Africa to London, 11-year-old Roland is sent to a boarding school, where he displays an amazing piano talent and meets the young woman who will change his life forever – Miriam Cornell.

Your private music lessons quickly become about much more than music. When he hits a wrong note, “her fingers found his inner leg, right at the edge of his gray shorts, and squeezed him hard.” The first touch stirs something in Roland, and years later, still not old enough to drive, he is drawn into a passionate sexual relationship with Miriam. It is clear that this abusive and domineering relationship will define Roland’s life long after Miriam is no longer a part of it.

One of the joys of the novel is the way it weaves history into Roland’s biography as well as the lives of other characters in the book. The event that triggers his affair with Miriam is the Cuban Missile Crisis. The prospect of being “vaporized” in a nuclear blast spurs him to jump on his bike and answer a three-year-old invitation to stop by her house for lunch. The wife who is missing at the start of the book has parents who were members of the White Rose resistance movement during World War II. Later, as a young man before the birth of his son, Roland is at the Brandenburg Gate when the Berlin Wall falls. And ultimately, today is when COVID is changing everyone’s lives. These historical markers put the very personal story of Roland’s life into perspective. “We are all one with history now, subject to its whims,” ​​thinks Roland as he copes with the pandemic, alone, cut off from family and friends.

There are other themes here that McEwan explores in depth – from envy to ambition to what really constitutes a life well lived – but the pleasure of reading this novel is letting it wash over you. McEwan is a storyteller at the peak of his powers, and this deserves to be near the top of the “best books of 2022” list.



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