Ian McEwan: Lessons

by Jennifer Bryce

Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan has admitted in an interview that Lessons, his seventeenth novel, is ‘indulgently long’. What is it about? I can’t really answer that question. A ‘baby boomer’ young man drifts through life – all the significant things that happen: the Suez Crisis, the fall of the Berlin wall, the ending of the ‘cold war’… Is this man a drifter because of the startling experience he had as an adolescent with his piano teacher, causing him to arrive at her doorstep ‘twitchy with eroticised terror’?

When I read about this adolescent experience at the beginning of the novel I thought it a vivid fantasy – it couldn’t really happen. But I was wrong. It did happen to Roland Baines.  Did it mark and shape the rest of his life? According to a lover, much later in life, it ‘rewired’ his brain. It clearly had an effect, but nothing like the dramatic effect I would have expected.

Roland Baines is an ordinary ‘baby boomer’ man – a not very successful poet. Through circumstance, he is a wonderful father to his son, for whom he is the sole parent from when Lawrence is about seven months old. This is because Roland’s wife suddenly and, seemingly, inexplicably leaves. In her note she says, mysteriously, ‘I’ve been living the wrong life’.

I did not forgive her, leaving her little son in order to become a writer – even though she became a very good writer.  There are countless excellent writers who do not totally sever connections with their children. After years of loneliness, Roland does find happiness although, because of the death of the woman he comes to love, it is fairly short-lived.