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Book Review: Lessons – Ian McEwan

By Dr Mike D Williams

A powerful novel from Ian McEwan to join a long list of hits from him over the years. There are elements of autobiography in the story. The plot twists and turns. Characters appear and then later their stories are explored in depth to add to the interest.

The main character is Roland Baines, who, as an eleven-year-old boy not long after the Second World War, is sent from his father’s Army base in Libya to a small boarding school in Suffolk. That part is autobiographical along with the trips to Germany later in the story. (You can listen to an interview with Ian McEwan about his life on BBC Sounds – This Cultural Life.)

A key theme within the story is that of freedom – never quite able to settle with the uncertainly that results. Roland struggles to deal with the consequences of his school lessons – particularly with his piano teacher, Miriam Cornell. That relationship, developed during the Cuban missile crisis, left scars and mixed emotions that never faded.

Twenty-five years later Roland’s wife suddenly vanishes leaving him with his baby son. A gifted musician who never fulfilled his potential, Roland drifts through life. His wife’s parents live in Germany and that provides McEwan with the canvass to paint a series of pictures about her parents, how they met alongside the issues in East Germany and then the fall of the Berlin Wall. McEwan has travelled a lot in Germany and his description of walking through the hole in the wall is based on his experience of being there in the crowds in 1989.

Through the book we learn more about Roland’s parents, his father’s Army career and his wider family. Brilliantly unpacked and linked to the post-war period it provides more twists and turns and the unravelling of secrets.

Over the years Roland discovers more about his wife and how her life developed back in Germany and why she had abandoned Roland and her son. Key issues of love, uncertainty, freedom and regret are deftly explored as life moves through remarriage and from middle to old age. Infirmity, mortality and the joy of grandchildren appear towards the end. There is a sense of hope in the exchange of love Roland finds with the younger generation.

I can only admire a writer who can create such a fascinating tale with so many threads that are weaved into such a stirring yet concerning story. McEwan, known for his darker short stories at the beginning of his career is not always an easy read in terms of the issues he brings to the surface. This is a fascinating story about love, loss and regret – well worth reading.