The protagonist of Ian McEwan’s new novel is Roland Baines, a man “without roots”, who, after having “moved dozens of jobs”, is a part-time tennis coach, pianist, poet and full-time father. Roland, like McEwan, was born in the late 1940s, and belongs to the generation that “sat in history’s lap, huddled in a little time crease, eating all the cream.”
As a boy in an English boarding school, Roland was sexually abused by a young woman who was his piano teacher. The accident scares him for life and is a recurring trope in the novel.
How Lessons opens, we find Roland, who has just become a father, in a state of dismay and dizzying bewilderment. His wife has abandoned him and his infant son, leaving only a note. As Roland tries to come to terms with this catastrophe, we are given – going back and forth in time – an account of Roland’s life: his childhood in Tripoli; his boarding days in the English countryside; his itinerant existence in London; her marriage and his breakup; fatherhood and his relationship to his parents, especially his long-suffering mother.
Alongside this story are the echoes of world historical events directly or indirectly affecting Roland’s life: the Chernobyl disaster; the birth of the word processor; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the collapse of the Soviet Union; Tony Blair and New Labor break the grip of the Conservatives in Britain. It is an ambitious ploy aimed at revealing how a life, despite its particularities and uniqueness, can embody and reflect the changing history of the world.
But it doesn’t always come off. McEwan’s attempt to package all of this often results in passages that read too much like dry, potted history. “Two years have passed, the Falklands War has been fought and won, somewhere beyond most people’s awareness, the foundations of the internet have been laid, Mrs Thatcher and her party have won a majority of 144 seats in Parliament. Roland turned thirty-five.”
McEwan’s descriptions, whether of a London evening or a small German town, are as vivid as ever. Here it is on Roland, suddenly in bottoms, taking his son on a holiday: “Mortgage paid off, brightly dressed son, two weeks together on a neglected Greek island reached by a three-hour speedboat ride across a flat sea.” cerulean”.
Lessons it is strongest as it portrays relationships, especially branch ones. McEwan’s account of Roland’s new fatherhood and its enchanted mysteries and unconditional love, of how she “often marveled at the mere fact of his being a son” is touching. He remembers the wonderful phrase of the American writer Marylinne Robinson: “… it is your existence for which I love you, mainly”.
He’s equally good at showing the decline of his own aging parents and what effect it has on their adult children. “Now, little bits of their life were starting to vanish or fly away suddenly… Then bigger bits came off and had to be picked up or caught in mid-air by their children.”
In a 2014 interview with The Telegraph (London), McEwan had said that “very few novels gain their length”. He went on to describe how much he adored shorter novels that can be read in one sitting, “like enjoying a movie or a three-hour opera.” Most of McEwan’s novels, from the first disturbing ones to winning the Booker Prize Amsterdam to the exquisitely crafted On Chesil beachto name but a few, they fall into that category. Lessons it does not gain its length. As a longtime admirer of his work, I can only hope that McEwan will return to typing his next work.
Lessons By Ian McEwan
pp. 483, €699