Opening sentence: ‘For me it began with a fall.’
I was looking out in the library for Naomi Alderman’s The Power, but all copies were on loan. So in the meantime I thought I would try The Lessons to see if her writing appeals to me – and it really does. I’m always grateful to discover a book and writer like this. It could easily have passed me by.
The Lessons is narrated by James as he begins his life at Oxford University with all the pressure that brings. There is a prologue that hints of what is to follow. James’ sister has been before him and by her own assessment has succeeded. The family message is clear – failing is not an option, making the right connections is as important as passing. Within the first few weeks James is falling behind on both counts – then he is rescued by kind and grounded Jess who takes him under her wing
Naomi Alderman does a great job of describing the angst of James, his feeling of exclusion from the outset; the challenge for the boys used to being top of the class now fighting for survival, the fantasy of being part of the in crowd led by the wealthy, privileged and troubled Mark; the euphoria of being accepted into the group – the reality of what that actually means – the impact on the rest of their lives.
Many of the reviews I’ve read mention the similarities this novel has with Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History – perhaps in a way that suggests the theme is not overly original. I haven’t read either of these but it did have a familiar feel in a Gatsby-esque kind of way. That didn’t worry me though, the writing style drew me in from the first page and I enjoyed the story. James’ voice seemed real and genuine even with the bias that comes with a first person narrative.
And the lessons alluded to in the title? Perhaps it boils down to this, my favourite quote in the book..
…. But life teaches us who we are.