cover image Lessons


Ian McEwan. Knopf, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-0-593-53520-2

McEwan returns with his best work since the NBCC-winning Atonement, a sprawling narrative that stretches from the commencement of the Cold War to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Protagonist Roland Baines, “another inky boy in a boarding school,” is 11 when his piano teacher, Miriam Cornell, begins to groom him for abuse. A sexual relationship ensues, and Roland never recovers from the experience. He grows into a distant underachiever, eventually finding work as a lounge pianist in London and, occasionally, as a journalist. He marries Alissa and has a son, Lawrence, but Alissa disappears when Lawrence is an infant. With help from the police, he tracks her movement to Paris, prompting bittersweet memories of their courtship. In 1986, three-year-old Lawrence obsesses over such events as the Chernobyl disaster while Roland confronts the lingering impact of Miriam’s abuse and Alissa’s sudden reappearance. Alissa then publishes a bestselling (and specious) memoir, which isn’t so nice on Roland. Throughout, McEwan poignantly shows how the characters contend with major historical moments while dealing with the ravages of daily life, which is what makes this so affecting. He also employs lyrical but pared-down prose to great effect, such as the scene of Roland’s father’s funeral: “A thin teenage girl in a tight black trouser suit opened the door of the undertakers and made a formal nod as he entered.” Once more, the masterly McEwan delights. (Sept.)

Correction: A previous version of this review incorrectly stated that the novel Atonement had won the Booker Prize.