Some people never learn, or so history would suggest. One doesn’t have to look hard to find repeated patterns that can cause lingering trauma, from interpersonal cruelties to larger events such as wars and other human-made disasters. This is just the sort of material that Ian McEwan—that eloquent virtuoso at mining life’s barbarities—likes to exploit for narrative effect, and he does so yet again in Lessons, a scathing novel about the ways brutality, intentional or otherwise, can shape a life.
The life at the center of this exceptional work is that of Roland Baines. At the start of the novel, it’s the late 1950s, when Roland is n 11. His parents, a tough-love father who was an infantryman in Scotland and a mother who betrayed her first husband, have sent him 2,000 miles away from their home in North Africa to attend boarding school in England.
Among Roland’s formative experiences are the overtures, musical as well as physical, of a piano teacher in her 20s. “This was insomniac memory, not a dream,” Roland says of his adult recollections of those days, among them the time she pinched his bare thigh after he made a mistake while performing a piece from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, leaving a “secret oval mark.”
Young Roland’s relationship with his teacher progresses in unsettling ways, but an equally disfiguring scar appears later. His wife, Alissa, whom he met in 1977 after enrolling in her German language class, abandons him and their 7-month-old son because, as she puts it (with shades of Doris Lessing), motherhood “would’ve sunk me” and kept her from becoming “the greatest novelist of her generation.”
McEwan’s novel moves back and forth in time to record the salient events of Roland’s life: adapting to single parenthood, eking out a living as a lounge pianist, learning of his and Alissa’s families’ pasts and more. As McEwan recounts seven decades of Roland’s life, the author places his character’s personal events in a global context and focuses on such international milestones as the Cuban missile crisis, the disaster at Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lessons is designed to unsettle, which is nothing new for McEwan. Although some readers may disagree, the novel posits that knaves and heroes come in all guises, and that everyone is capable of lies, predation and selfishness. The book has moments of warmth that are surprising in a work from McEwan, but there’s plenty of his classic cruelty, too, perpetrated by men and women alike. Lessons may not be optimistic, but as Roland notes, “Only the backward look, the well-researched history could tell peaks and troughs from portals.” Which is another way of saying that, with enough hindsight and sentience, there’s a chance that mistakes can be corrected and lessons learned.