I first discovered Ian McEwan when I was a teenager and I can still recall being blown away by his two collections of short stories – “First Love, Last Rites” (1975) and “In Between The Sheets” (1978). I had never read anything like these before and his first novel “The Cement Garden” (1978) was equally flooring.
Decades on we are up to his 17th adult novel and along the way there has been the all-time classic, “Atonement” (2001) and the very strong, (“Enduring Love” (1997)“, The Innocent” (1990), “Saturday” (2005) and “Nutshell” (2016)), the okay “On Chesil Beach” (2007) and the one which left me cold but won him the Booker Prize in 1998 “Amsterdam”. I haven’t read everything by him- “Nutshell” was the last and I reckon this latest makes it my 11th experience of him over the years.
Main character in this decades-spanning work is Roland Baines (a character the same age as McEwan which gives this an autobiographical feel to historical perspectives if not the actual events of the novel) and central is his experience as an 11 year old new to private school in 1959 when his female piano teacher punishes his mistakes by slipping a finger under his shorts and pinching his thigh. This leads to an obsession for Roland which endures over the next few years. Obsession is something McEwan does so well, we’ve seen it before in “Enduring Love” but here it is two-sided and we see the influence of this woman in the rest of Roland’s life. Another starting point is in 1986 when his wife fails to return home leaving new father Roland as a suspect in her disappearance.
McEwan’s novel brings us up to the present-day – post-lockdown (this is my first experience of the lockdown months in fiction and it feels very authentic and I discovered I am ready to read about it now ) and takes in family members, including Lawrence, the son he had to bring up alone and also incorporates back-story of his mother-in-law’s experience in post-war Germany.
At times the writing is superb and it is bated-breath fiction- particularly around the relationship with Roland and piano teacher Miriam yet at other times it feels surprisingly loose for an author whose work is often so concise and tight and yet even when it feels close to becoming bogged down in the everyday minutiae of family life, for example, he is able to produce writing and scenes which pulls it back and keeps the reader on side. His son, Lawrence, and his generation feel quite safe characters and I did expect more spark and tension to come from them (unless this is McEwan’s comment on this age group) and there is one characterisation (I’ll leave you to work it out) who does not feel totally plausible.
It does feel a long book, in terms of words and scope. It is highly reflective with a lot of evaluating the past and the lessons learnt. I feel it is almost but not quite up there amongst his best work, there are scenes which will likely remain with me for a long time but I think that the fact that I found myself struggling with a star rating for this (even as I was writing this review) suggests it was not a five star read for me but a very high four star work.
Lessons was published in hardback by Jonathan Cape and as an e-book by Vintage on 13th September. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.