Cover Image: Lessons


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One man's life. Spanning the aftermath of World War II through the present day pandemic. In many ways, Roland Barnes is just another one of us drifting through life, bouncing from event to event. However, family history and his relationships with different women create pivotal moments that reverberate through the years. What makes us who we are? The times we live in? Our family secrets? Those we love? McEwan suggests it is the confluence of all these. A fascinating read.

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A big Thank You goes out to #NetGalley for providing me with a 73rd birthday present in the form of an ARC of Ian McEwan’s superb new novel, #Lessons, which could have been subtitled The Life And Times Of Roland Baines. In #Lessons McEwan gives us a history lesson on today’s world and how we arrived at such a precarious place as perceived by the fictional life of protagonist Roland Baines, who, in 2022, is also approaching his mid 70’s. By superimposing the events in Baines’ personal life with the actual events taking place over the past 70 years, McEwan brilliantly creates a very real fictitious life . #Lessons is a riveting tale that is totally engrossing from start to finish and is up with Mr. McEwan’s best. Don’t miss it !

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I think this falls just about at 3.5, I did find it a bit hard to get started as it was rather melancholy. I do really enjoy McEwan’s characters though and this book was no exception.

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Another hit from the author. For me a little bit too much of historical information, but a great storyline. A good weaving of present and past. This is a book which I would recommend to all.

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This is Ian McEwen’s 16th novel, his first – if you exclude the satrirical Brexit novella “The Cockroach” - since his AI/Turing novel “Machines Like Me” in 2019. Six of his previous novels have been Booker nominated (between 1981 and 2007 – one win, four shortlistings) and he was nominated for the first two years of the International Booker (when it was an award for lifetime achievement).

The book (or at least my ARC) opens with a letter from the publisher to the reader talking about how Ian McEwan has “written some of the most lasting, resonant and original fiction of our time”, and that this is a story which is “at once universal and deeply personal ……… set against the past seventy years of political and cultural upheaval” ending “the word masterpiece probably gets thrown around too often, but I use it deliberately and emphatically here”.

The book is narrated in a fairly traditional first person voice by Roland Baines who started Boarding school in England in 1959 when he was 11. Baines father is a working class Scotsman who worked his way up through the war and afterwards to a Major; his mother, Aldershot based originally, had a previous marriage to a soldier who was killed in World War II. Roland’s step brother and step sister from that marriage were placed by his parents with a paternal grandparent and London institution respectively – and when Roland was young his parents moved to Tripoli with the army.

Now for anyone with a knowledge of McEwan’s own biography, or who has just glanced at Wikipedia, there are large amounts of autobiographical detail here – which means for anyone with a little more familiarity one major plot development is inevitable around 300 pages before it becomes clear to Baines.

The book effectively starts in May 1986 (just as the Cherynobyl disaster was beginning to be discovered – one of a swathe of world events which cut across the book), but starts with a memory (“The past was often a conduit from memory to restless fantasising”) of 1959/60 as Roland, a intuitively brilliant but nervous piano player, is effectively assaulted by his female school piano teacher Miriam Connell. Back in 1986, Roland is alone with his very young child Lawrence, his wife Alissa having left after writing a note saying she could not stay in their marriage (albeit the police initially are sceptical of Roland’s role in the disappearance).

From there we look back over some nearly 500 pages to Roland’s school days and early marriage, and forwards over the next 35 years or so right up to the present day.

On his schooldays we particularly focus on his re-encounter with Miriam Connell at the age of 14, where he is haunted by the Cuban Missile Crisis and a commonly shared worry among his schoolfriends that they might die without “doing it” and Miriam effectively seduces and then grooms him for a couple of years before the two break up when she proposes elopement on his 16th birthday (Roland is far more interested in the physical side of the relationship).

This relationship (and the desire for sexual fulfillment it gave him); and slightly more oddly (and I can only assume more autobiographically) a week in Libya where he lived with a sense of unreal freedom in a camp (where forces families were taken to in the feared aftermath of the Suez Crisis) – affect Roland for life with firstly a sense of physical entitlement and secondly with a sense that freedom is possible if only he avoids commitments – both of which are of course anathema to a stable long-term relationship. Added to this a unfulfilled desire to be the very best at whatever he does (piano playing, poetry, tennis playing are all deemed failures) leads Roland to a life of drifting – over time he makes his living from , respectively, playing the piano in the lounge bar of a hotel, teaching amateur tennis players, and writing literary doggerel for a start up high-quality greeting card company.

And we see this and how it impacts Roland’s life and his relationship with his friends and family, all of which plays out against major events. The fall of the Berlin Wall, various General elections – Roland shares McEwen’s centrist Labour tendencies, terrorist attacks etc are more than just backdrops to the book, but more like the stage on which Roland lives out his own life.

Another important aspect of the novel are Alissa (who he originally meets teaching German classes)’s parents. Her father was a member of the (real life) White Rose movement of anti-Nazi but non-violent intellectuals in Germany. Her mother an English lady who forced her way to be foreign correspondent for the (real life) UK literary magazine Horizon – with an original idea to write about the White Rose movement post-War and then to travel but who met her now husband and abandoned her plans, then becoming a mother and frustrated (by domesticity) and unpublished memoir/journal writer. I must admit I found this part of the book (the pre WWI Blaue Reiter art movement features quite a lot also) uninteresting.

The relationship between parent and child – what at one stage Roland calls “parenting, its double helix of love and labour” is a key and important part of the novel – and one we see from many sides including Roland his son Lawrence, Roland’s own differently difficult relationship with his parents, and Alissa’s with hers (particularly her flammable relationship with her mother and overwhelming desire to avoid repeating what she sees at her mother’s mistaken frustrated surrender to domesticity) and the autobiographical twist to Roland’s (Mc Ewen’s) extended family of siblings.

At one stage, effectively when Alissa enters the public stage (and re-enters the book’s stage) as a rapidly successful and hugely acclaimed novelist, this novel takes a turn which is not so much autobiographical as self-referential, in a way in which I was not sure what was entirely motivating McEwan.

For example:

At one stage a collage of dinner party conversational fragments includes a debate of the ability of male authors longlist for the 2002 Booker longlist (and an incorrect tip from Martyn Goff) – only 4 years after McEwan’s own win of the prize (and 1 year after the shortlisting).

At another point, Roland places a bet on the Nobel Prize for literature in 2009, thinking its time for a German speaking author to win, only to pick the wrong German author – and we cannot help but think how McEwan (recognised for prizes and literary awards around the world) reacted to his fellow UEA-alumin and English language novelist Ishiguro winning the Nobel Prize in 2017.

Later Roland admits he was dismissive of contemporary Oxbridge-alumni authors who “busied themselves with social surfaces, with sardonic descriptions of class differences … lightweight tales [where the] greatest tragedy was a rumbled affair or divorce” and topical issues were ignored, only to decude years later that “a tweed jacket never stopped anyway from writing well” (McEwan managing to be an author not from Oxbridge and how does look at topical themes – perhaps too much so – but who is still often pictured in a tweed jacket – so is this trying to have the best of both worlds?).

There is also an odd dig at the literary editors commissioning “novelists rather than critics to review each other’s works” – something I would agree with as the reviews are often superficial and far too positive (hoping the favour may be returned) but which Roland (or I suspect McEwan speaking through him) condemns due to “insecure writers condemning the fiction of their colleagues to make elbow room for themselves”) – which made we tempted to Google the reviewers and reviews of McEwan’s latest novels.

And then towards the end of Alissa’s career (and life) we are told “‘She’s our greatest novelist. Teenage school kids are made to read her. But she’s white, hetero, old and she’s said things that alienate younger readers. Also, when a writer has been around long enough people begin to get tired. Even if she does something different every time. They say, She’s doing something different – again!’ – this from a white, hetero, old author who writes a set of novels which are ostensibly hugely varied (climate change satire, spy romance, court drama and anti-religious polemic, Shakspeare rewrite, AI alternative history and now epic to pick the books since he was last Booker nominated) but which I think most readers would say has a distinctive style.

And perhaps most daringly/ambiguously (I am not really sure at all) we have Alissa’s own novels. When Roland first reads the self-translation of her first work “The Journey’s” he immediately loves it against his better resentment-fuelled judgement: “The prose was beautiful, crisp, artful, the tone from the first lines had authority and intelligence. The eye was exact, unforgiving, compassionate. In some of the starkest scenes there was a near- comic sense of both human inadequacy and courage. There were paragraphs that rose from Catherine’s limited perspective to provide a broad historical awareness – destiny, catastrophe, hope, uncertainty.”

And later he quotes the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s ecstatic review hailing it as “Tolstoyan in sweep, with a Nabokovian delight in the formation of pitch-perfect sentences” - and (remember the editor’s letter with which this book and this review open) “a masterpiece”. Further we are told “Alissa Eberhardt is not afraid of our recent past, or of history itself or of a gripping narrative, of full and deep characterisation, of love and the sorry end of love” but that “Only her title escapes her capacity for brilliant invention “

Are we meant to treat these as passages from which to extract quotes to use in our own review of this book (one with a similar historical sweep, a similar treatment of love and the end of love, and even a similarly uninspired title”?

At times (particularly in the rather interminable German sections) I was more inclined to say my thoughts resembled those of Roland on reading of the Chernobyl crisis in detail: “The entire story, the accumulated details, were beginning to nauseate him. Like eating too much cake. Radiation sickness.”

But I think McEwan (even in this quote) is deliberately playing with us – and later as he discusses a fable like children’s story with his beloved granddaughter Stefanie, we have a link back to this book’s title

‘Do you think the story is trying to tell us something about people?’ She looked at him blankly. ‘Don’t be silly, Opa. It’s about cats and dogs.’ He saw her point. A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson.

So overall I found not a masterpiece but definitely a good tale.

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I often struggled with almost three quarters of this book. As the publisher’s description says, after Roland’s affair with his piano teacher (if you can call it an affair when Roland is just barely pubescent) he leads a rootless life. When his wife disappears, the book description would have you believe that Roland begins a lifelong search for answers. But for me, it didn’t feel like Roland did anything so purposeful. Instead, for decades he is feckless, going through a string of short-lived relationships that always end because of his inability to be open and committed. True, that’s largely because of his formative experiences of love and sex, which were founded in the twisted attentions of the piano teacher. While his being a mess is understandable, there’s only so much I wanted to read about him drifting through his life.

But then, for reasons I won’t reveal, Roland finally pulls his head out of his nether passage, and the last quarter-plus of the book is simply transcendent. It feels soaringly true about the many forms of love, and how one confronts age and infirmity in oneself and others. This latter part of the book also feels more immediate in its treatment of historical events and its trenchant observations about how the world has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and how differently events have played out compared to the optimism and hope of 1989.

That latter part of the book is so masterful and affecting that it makes me think I might feel more forgiving about the former part if I were to re-read it now.

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Historical fiction that spans the 70 year life of a man that faces trauma throughout his life from the 1950's to the 2020's. Roland is sexually abused by his piano teacher at the age of 11 during boarding school. We see how this illicit sexual relationship affects his relationships with others later in life. The author is thoughtful in including the backdrop of historical events that parallel Roland's life such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the current pandemic. Roland's life has many traumatic events that the reader sees him deal with, often times inappropriately as we all do, and said events also shape his character, course and friendships.

This is the first Ian McEwan that I have read. I did not care for the depressing tale but am open to exploring his other works. For me, this was just such a sad tale of missed opportunities and the impact it can have on a life half lived.

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This book is an epic of one man's life spanning over 70 years. I love books that focus on big historical events through the lens of an ordinary person, and this book had plenty of that. Ian McEwan is a fantastic author and I am really looking forward to picking up more of his work. I loved going on this journey with Roland.

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Wow. Amazing book covering the life and times of one man, Roland Baines. Book is unique in 2ay it balances the tory o the individual with the times in which he lived. As a gestalt thinker, I kept wondering which was figural, as that seemed to change regularly during the story. As the author dealt with all of the social changes of the protagonist's lifetime, I was reminded of Paul McCartney's "Back i the USSR." Roland Baines' life was of greater interest to me as a reader, possibly as he was a chronological peer of mine. Roland seemed to drift somewhat aimlessly in life, but at the end he seemed to have learned what's important.

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Ian McEwan writes with a fluid grace that brings beauty and lyrical prose into every situation. His command of language propels the narrative. Unforgettable characters are fleshed out in a family saga that carries one through their key life moments set in key historical periods. The novel includes characters of all ages with a depth that could easily engender full evenings of discussion about his revealing truths about old age and the peculiar realities of children’s minds. The plot includes social and political issues that are seamlessly included in the lives of the characters. This novel provides a delightful experience that moved me into the story and kept me in awe of the writing talent.

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