Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Book Review: The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

Read: April 2010

The Lessons in one Tweet-sized chunk:
An uncomfrotably familiar tale of youth, and how the lessons in life often come too late. 

“We could, you know, hara-kiri, right here in the kitchen.”…
“Why would we do that?”…
“Because our lives are over, James. This is it. The end. We will never have a time like this again.”
These words, spoken by the erratic Mark Winters as his university course draws to a close, sum up one of the attitudes Naomi Alderman seeks to dispel in The Lessons: the pervasive and destructive notion that one’s university years constitute ‘the best days of your life.’ That saying, and all that it encompasses, is the raven perched perpetually upon a chamber door screeching “never more” at the characters, and as its words grow louder, so the desperate mania drives them on, tension building, towards something ominous.

James is a first year student at one of Oxford’s illustrious colleges. His older sister has told him how to get the most from Oxford but now that he is there he feels isolated and falling behind the pack. And when he injures his knee slipping on a patch of ice he finds that he can no longer keep up. Oxford, it seems, has broken him in one semester.

But things change for James when he meets Jess, a warm and generous girl who seems to like him. She introduces him to the wealthy and charismatic Mark Winters and his bright world of decadence, parties and love affairs quashes the blankness enveloping James. Together with Jess and a few others, James moves out of the college dorm and into Mark’s crumbling Georgian mansion, to share his charmed life. There they reside, a small group of close friends living on food delivered from Fortnum and Mason. But no matter how hard they seek to hide from it in the sequestered grandeur of that hidden house, life eventually catches up and when university ends they find that all their studying and parties have not prepared them for the difficulties of adult life.

The Lessons begins with a wonderfully vivid image of waste and excess, in which a feast has been cast into a swimming pool, with the greens and reds of a panettone’s crystilised fruit dissolving in the water. And throughout, there is a feeling that something terrible is going to happen, that all the wealth and excess, all the stretched taut tensions will result in tragedy. Without being particularly sexual, it is full of with desire laden undercurrents that make it intensely erotic, and keep the reader turning the page compulsively.
There is a sense that Naomi Alderman, who received her first degree from Oxford, has experiences to exorcise from her time there, delusions about Oxford to challenge, and this comes through into the prose.

“What is Oxford? It is like a magician, dazzling viewers with bustle and glitter, misdirecting our attention. What was it for me? Indifferent tuition, uncomfortable accommodation, uninterested pastoral care. It has style: the gowns, cobbled streets, domed libraries and sixteenth-century portraits. It is old and it is beautiful and it is grand. And it is unfair and it is narrow and it is cold. Walking in Oxford, one catches a glimpse through each college doorway, a flash of tended green lawn and ancient courtyards. But the doorways are guarded and the guardians are suspicious and hostile.”

Oxford does not fare well. Yet one of Alderman’s greatest achievements in The Lessons is that even with the very vivid descriptions that bring Oxford to life, she manages to convey a more universal depiction of university. The student’s attitudes, the mentality of newly won freedom clung to lest it evaporate in thin air. At times I felt that she was writing the words I had felt but not articulated, and this was incredibly powerful.
Just as Oxford’s spires loom large over the characters, two celebrated novels dominate The Lessons: Brideshead Revisited which has become almost a caricature of Oxford, and The Secret History, a tale of power and self-destruction in a similar closely knit group of students. With the former, there are a number of close plot and character resemblances.  James and Mark are essentially Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte, and their homosexual undertone is brought into the foreground. Like Charles, James is a passive character, drawn to the powerful Flyte-like Mark, a troubled character for whom a wealthy and privileged upbringing has resulted in a dangerous lack of self control. His Catholicism, which he clings to fervently, has given him a world view of glorious suffering, of saviour and sacrifice which is reflected in his relationships with the surrogate family he gathers around him.

It is this surrogate family that most recalls Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The characters of Jess, Emmanuella, Fran, Simon, James and Mark bear resemblance to those in The Secret History as does the texture of their interaction. Their group dynamics are familiar; there is an atmosphere in which independence and freedom are careering dangerously out of control. And, just as in The Secret History, the narrator is driven by an obsession with beauty. “Beauty is a lie, but it is so hard to spot,” mentions James, as he thinks back not only to Oxford, but the lustre of wealth that so beguiled him. Like Richard in The Secret History, his fatal flaw is “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs” and each of them, drawn to a picturesque, emotive world they never dreamed of belonging to, sacrifices much of their selves in the process.

Yet while the resemblance to both Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History is apparent, the latter is a slightly false one, for the characters in The Lessons pale in comparison to The Secret History. Emmanuella, particularly, seems lost to plot and narrative, but Fran, Simon and most frustratingly of all, Jess, lack a voice of their own. Of course, to a certain extent this is due to James’s obsession with Mark which prevents him seeing anyone else as a real person, but it is frustrating, nonetheless. They are massively undercooked, cardboard cut-outs to stand in the sidelines and tell us something about Mark and James, rather than fully rounded characters. James is a blank slate who seeks out a strong personality in whose reflection he can define himself. He’s similar, in many ways, to Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, with Mark playing the life of the party Gatsby-esque hero. But neither fully convinces. James is too blank, and Mark’s appeal is not always clear to the reader. Most of the time he comes across as a foolish rich boy without respect for anyone around him.

Similarly, while the roughly fifteen year scope of The Lessons is a virtue that allows it to introduce wider themes of university and life, the plot is not dense enough to surround the reader within it, and the narrative too short so that the tension and austere sense of place that builds up within the first half at Oxford gradually dissipates thereafter.

For this reason The Lessons is inherently flawed. The weak characters let it down and I felt it tailed off towards the end. It’s one of those novels that flatters to deceive, and as such doesn’t quite achieve all that it sets out to. Yet despite this, there is an ominous sense of impending doom which, combined with a well judged portrayal of the expectations of life which are contained within universities, make it a compelling and readable novel in which the lesson, in the end, is one of self discovery.

“What is it that one learns from life? I had always supposed that I would accumulate some wisdom as my life progressed. That, as in my progress through Oxford, some knowledge would inevitably adhere to me. I suppose I hoped that love would teach me.
But the very question is redundant. It is ridiculous to think we can learn anything from so arbitrary an experience as life. It forms no kind of curriculum and its gifts and punishments are bestowed too arbitrarily to constitute a mark scheme. There is only one subject on which the lessons are in any way informative.
The man in the mirror is me, I thought. For good or ill, that’s me.”

7 out of 10

Viking, April 2010, 9780670916290, 280pp

This book is one of six Summer Reads chosen by Writers’ Centre Norwich this summer. For more information see www.summerreads.org.uk

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