Lessons by Ian McEwan – Review

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By Alex Mair

Lessons, Ian McEwan’s 17th novel, marks a significant departure from his previous fiction in a number of different ways. Firstly, it’s significantly longer than his other novels. Ian McEwan’s greatest contribution is probably his novellas, short novels of 220 pages or less. He rarely writes a novel over 250 pages. The exceptions – Atonement, Solar – are few and far between. Lessons clocks in at a whopping 483 pages, making it significantly longer than any of his previous novels.

It is also very autobiographical, which makes it very unusual. Until now Ian McEwan has only written one genuinely autobiographical moment that I can discern, in The Child in Time, a personal favourite of mine, when the main character remembers a North African boyhood. Fittingly enough, The Child in Time is the novel Lessons most resembles.

Lessons is a big, sweeping, epic novel which takes in a lot of recent European history. If the novel is about anything it’s about the strange love-hate relationship between England and Germany in the post-1945 era.

“Pain is the greatest teacher”

lessons ian mcewan book review coverThe first third of the novel is vintage McEwan. His greatest novels are about children, and the child’s view of the world; The Cement Garden, The Child in Time, Atonement and Nutshell all concern themselves with the disastrous results that occur when children’s naive interpretations of the world slam into adult lives.

The early chapters of Lessons certainly live up to my admittedly high expectations. It’s hard to think of another writer, except for John Updike, who has captured the ordinary business of everyday life with such anatomical precision. The chapters set in the state grammar school (which Ian McEwan attended) and Libya (where Ian McEwan lived while his army officer father was posted there after the war) are particularly well done.

Is Lessons a classic Ian McEwan novel? To be frank, I don’t know. I enjoyed Lessons, but I didn’t love it in the same way I loved Nutshell and Machines Like Me. I’ll be fascinated to see what the public makes of the novel.

I can’t help thinking that McEwan will experience some stick for the way the central relationship at the heart of the novel develops. He might be accused of condoning a crime at the heart of the book (I personally don’t think he does). Pain, it is said, is an educational process. Suffering teaches us more about ourselves than happiness. Happiness teaches us nothing. Pain is the greatest teacher life will bestow on us. Here is a novel about the lessons life teaches us, both good and bad, both joyful and painful. Are we not all, ultimately, prisoners in time?

‘Lessons’ by Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape, £20 hardback


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