Lessons by Ian McEwan

Lessons by Ian McEwan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charting the long story of one man’s life, as he tries to piece together his listless wandering from one missed opportunity to the next, the book begins with a piano lesson, where eleven year old Roland makes the same mistake he always makes as he attempts to meet the demands of his strict teacher. This relationship, between teacher and student, has a pervasive influence throughout the life of Roland, permeating into every decision, or indecision, that follows.

Like McEwan’s oeuvre that preceded it, the book is brilliantly written, and while Roland’s life is depicted over decades, it is filled with minute details that give vibrancy to Roland’s listless drifting as he wastes his talents and opportunities, which underscores the epic achievement of the novel in allowing the reader to invest in a character who exists, rather than lives.

The book, however, is challenging in a number of respects, the first of which is the subversion of the gendered expectation of behaviour in two important regards. The first of which is in the sexual exploitation of a student by a teacher. Statistically, this is more likely to be perpetuated by a male teacher against a female student, but in Lessons, it is Roland’s female piano teacher who abuses her position of power to groom and exploit Roland. Roland’s inner exploration of his guilt and self-abhorrence as he condemns himself for his complicity in the abuse is carefully written, however, while the abuse shadows Roland in the pages that follow, it sat somewhat uncomfortably with me, particularly given the second main subversion of gendered expectations. For it is Roland who is abandoned by his wife so that she can free herself to write, to chase the dream of being a great novelist.

At this point in time, I was pondering whether this book was somewhat of an apology to women in general for the burden they must carry in terms of household management and childcare, in order to allow the men to pursue literary calling. To be fair to McEwan, this is a notion he discusses in the novel – he explicitly says that historically, ‘there were very few cases of women sacrificing others for their art’ (p. 363) and that ‘the literary biographies teemed with wives and children abandoned for the higher calling’ (p. 467) yet with Alissa being the one to leave her child, and even Roland, as the man abandoned, conceding that she could not have achieved what she had with her writing had she stayed, it almost feels as though McEwan, through Roland, is shrugging his shoulders over the inequity of a life in which one party must shoulder the burden to allow another to shine.

Of particular interest for me is the musings of an adult Roland on his childhood piano teacher, at a time when he knows that their interaction was abuse, even if he has not yet processed it as such. Roland wonders what the years would have done to this woman from his past. As his mind contemplates his past efforts to track her down, his mind turns to Dickens, and, admitting that he had read eight of Dickens’s novels in succession, recounts the story of Dickens’s reunion with Maria Beadnell, when as a middle-aged, celebrated and successful author, Dickens, tired of his marriage, hears from his first love Maria, and arranges to meet with her, chasing the memory of the young, vibrant and beautiful woman he had once been in love with. The reality of the reunion was shattering for Dickens, as he realises that Maria was not as he remembered her – as he had fantasised about her. Dickens’s experience revealed to Roland what he had ‘never fully thought through’ as he dreaded what she would have become.

Perhaps this, at the heart of it, is what this book is really all about, experiencing, in slow motion, the dread of what we become, even as it explores the issues of abandonment and the price – that others – usually pay in the pursuit of genius. McEwan delivers a lot to think about in this exquisitely written epic.

View all my reviews

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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