Lessons by Ian McEwan

I am not a McEwan fan and have tried to read this book twice before but reverted to my tried and trusted method of getting to grips with a book I am finding challenging by having it as an audiobook. I am glad, once again, that I did.

The story opens with Roland, an 11 year old boy, being groomed by his female piano teacher. This goes on for some time, both in Roland’s life and the book, and I got bored with it but eventually Roland’s life moves on and we follow him through until his death. And what a life he has.

There are two events that are significant and shape the patterns of his life. The first is the grooming and abuse that Roland is submitted to until he is sixteen years old – let’s call it what it is. I have seen this time in his life referred to as an affair, a seduction and an attraction but he is younger than sixteen years old and the woman is twenty five and a teacher. The second significant event in his life is his wife leaving him to bring up their child, Lawrence. Together, these two women leave Roland with a life-time of baggage that he only manages to offload towards his end. We might say that he doesn’t learn lessons easily, if at all.

So, what lessons does he learn? I am not sure he learns any, really. He doesn’t seem to learn any from raising his son, nothing about himself and why he won’t/can’t marry, why he never achieves having been a gifted piano player as a youngster. He ends up playing ‘munch music’ in hotels at meal times. He tries writing poetry but gives that up and so it goes on with him never settling at anything. He does learn about a ‘good’ death and how to have one from his wife of a few years when he is older and that lesson is carried over into his own life afterwards. Yes, he does have piano lessons and obviously learns a lot more than most during them but other than that, I don’t think he learns much at all.

Running alongside his life, McEwan sets a thread unravelling of historical events, from the Cuban missile crisis to lockdowns due to the pandemic and a lot inbetween. This means that we get the macro view of the world and the micro view of Roland’s world – big picture and detailed picture. I wasn’t sure if we were meant to make the links between what was happening in the world and Roland’s life. Surely the Cuban missile crisis linked with Roland discovering sex is a little too obvious, rockets going off and all that, but everything thereafter passed me by.

The men in the story are not described and as important as the women, although the scene where two middle-aged men have a fight on the banks of a river over who should put their wife’s or ex-wife’s ashes in the water is quite funny, other than that they are bores. They have affairs, earn too much money and then support Brexit. We don’t even really find out in any great detail how Lawrence feels about never seeing his mother and accepting that she never wants to see him.

The women are the heroes and villains in this work. Alissa, Roland’s first wife, leaves him and Lawrence because she feels suffocated by them and she is worried that her artistic endeavours in writing will be lost to motherhood. She becomes successful in Germany, her home country, and around the world, but book after book, Roland waits to find himself in it and when he does, of course it is fictionalised and so people think that he has done things that he didn’t do.

The larger subject was the ruthlessness of artists. Do we forgive or ignore their single-mindedness and cruelty in the service of their art? Are we more tolerant the greater the art?

Audiobook, no page numbers

McEwan also takes a pop at authors who employ other novelists rather than critics to review each other’s work.

At this point in the book I was reminded of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, their relationship and work. Hughes was never forgiven for Plath’s suicide and for many years was deemed to be responsible and whilst we don’t have suicide in this book, we do have two creative people who struggle to create together or separately whilst together.

The only other work I know by McEwan is Atonement from the film rather than the book and several of the themes are the same: young person, sex and how it affects their life thereafter. Both also have a thread about memory – it isn’t always reliable as Roland finds out when he visits his piano teacher to confront her many years later. Roland is aware of this inaccuracy because he doesn’t remember reading Joseph Conrad’s Youth and Two other Tales at all.

Books play an important role in the story – they are all classics – and because I haven’t read any of them, I am not sure how they link into his life but I bet they do. So is his life driven by lessons learnt from reading? At one point Roland decides to take his education into his own hands and creates a list of books he should read. So, here we have education as reading the classics.

This would make an excellent choice for book clubs. There is so much to discuss, not least whether all victims/survivors need the legal system to resolve their issues of abuse.

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