View the book | The ambitious drifter epic has a few surprises

The protagonist of Ian McEwan’s new novel is Roland Baines, a “rootless” man who, “wandering through a multitude of jobs”, is an occasional tennis coach, pianist, poet and full-time father. Roland, like McEwan, was born in the late 1940s and belongs to the generation that “lay in the lap of history, nestled in a small fold of time, ate all the cream”.

As a boy at an English boarding school, Roland was sexually abused by a young woman who was his piano teacher. The incident marked him for the rest of his life and is repeated throughout the novel.

As Lessons opens, we find Roland, who has just become a father, in a state of terror and giddy confusion. His wife left him and his young son, leaving behind only a note. As Roland tries to come to terms with this disaster, we get — wandering back and forth through time — an account of Roland’s life: his childhood in Tripoli; his boarding school days in the English countryside; his itinerant existence in London; his marriage and its dissolution; fatherhood, and his relationship with his parents, especially his long-term mother.

Along with this story, there are echoes of world historical events that directly or indirectly affect Roland’s life: the Chernobyl disaster; the birth of word processing; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the collapse of the Soviet Union; Tony Blair and New Labor are breaking the Conservatives’ stranglehold on Britain. It is an ambitious trick whose goal is to discover how one life, despite its peculiarities and uniqueness, can embody and reflect the changing history of the world.

But it doesn’t always work out. McEwan’s attempt to package it all up often results in passages that feel too much like dry, glossed-over history. “Two years have passed, the Falklands War was fought and won, somewhere, beyond the consciousness of most people, the foundations of the Internet were laid, Mrs Thatcher and her party won a majority of the 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 he is on Rolando, suddenly flush with money, taking his son on vacation: “Mortgage paid off, son brightly dressed, two weeks together on a beautiful Greek island that can be reached by a three-hour speedboat ride across the flat pearly sea.”

Lessons is strongest when it shows relationships, especially filial ones. McEwan’s account of Roland’s new fatherhood and its enchanting mysteries and unconditional love, how he “often marveled at the very fact that his son existed” is touching. It reminds of the beautiful sentence of the American writer Marilynne Robinson: “…mostly because of your existence.”

It is equally good at depicting the disappearance of aging parents and the effect this has on their grown children. “Now little pieces of their lives began to fall off or suddenly fly… Then larger pieces went and their children had to collect them or catch them in the air.”

In an interview with S. in 2014 The Telegraph (London), McEwan said that “very few novels deserve their length”. He then described how much he adores shorter novels that can be read in one sitting “like enjoying a three-hour movie or an opera.” Most of McEwan’s novels — from the troubling early ones to the Booker winners Amsterdam to exquisitely crafted On Chesil Beachto name just a few — fall into that category. Lessons it does not earn its length. As a longtime fan of his work, I can only hope that McEwan returns to typing his next work.

Lessons Author: Ian McEwan

Jonathan Cape

p. 483, 699 Rs

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