Book review of The Lessons By Naomi Alderman

The Lessons – Naomi Alderman

Book review of The Lessons By Naomi Alderman

Naomi Alderman is deservedly making a big splash at the moment, her new novel The Lessons attracting substantial newspaper reviews, and also being selected for BBC Radio 4′s Book at Bedtime (but what the audience of the sleepy elderly will make of it I’m not quite sure!).  The author’s previous novel, Disobedience won the Orange Prize for New Writers and in 2007 she was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year.

Disobedience told the story of two lesbian Jewish women and seems to have led to repercussions in her own Jewish community so severe (see interview in The Scotsman) that they led to a year of panic attacks and a declaration that she now categorises herself as “used to be Orthodox”.

The description of this book as a story about a group of Oxford undergraduates, their relationships and subsequent launch into real-life did not initially appeal to me, but I decided to make a start on it and see whether the author lived up to her reputation.  

I am pleased to say that I was rapidly drawn into the book and found myself so absorbed in it that I finished it in little more than a day.  This is no juvenile tale of casual sex and drug abuse (although they do feature in it) but rather a very grown-up account of a group of young people drawn into a disturbing set of relationships, almost cult-like in its power.

As I read this book, I found myself reflecting on what makes a book “good” and am not sure I have any answers, but if The Lessons is an example of “good” then the answer lies in the way Naomi Alderman’s characters are in a sense timeless.  

Her book is virtually the opposite of the ephemeral “chick-lit”, being almost comparable with Evelyn Waugh in its style and breadth.  The book has been compared with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (that “first novel” which was never followed up by anything even nearly equal to it), but I found more similarities with Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

James Stieff goes up to Oxford after a highly successful school career only to find that he struggles to make his mark among the elite group of students in his tutorial group.  He also severely injures his leg while out running and misses a key early week in his course and finds it difficult to catch up.  

He had not made friendships at University and finds himself isolated and unable to find the support he needs to carry on.  But one day he finds himself in Gloucester College Chapel listening to Christmas music and meets up with Jess, a musician, who takes an interest in him and invites him to a get-together in a friend’s house.

The friend turns out to be Mark, a very wealthy and flamboyant young man who owns the vast, rambling Annulet House in Oxford.  A circle of friends rapidly becomes evident, Jewish intellectual Franny, the beautiful Emmanuella and the self-composed, ambitious Simon.  

Mark is generous with his wealth and the house seems to be awash with champagne and bought-in meals far superior to the traditional take-away.  Before long, Mark invites the group of friends, including Mark and Jess (now an item) to move in to Annulet House rent-free, an offer few under-graduates would find easy to resist.

James life improves greatly with the new girl-friend and the ready-made social circle.  Mark however has a chaotic personality,  a gay adherent of casual sex, bringing home a variety of men who he picks up in Oxford, but strongly committed to a Catholicism which enables him to confess his sins and find a weekly new start.   

One hilarious scene has Mark’s lodgers coming down to breakfast and finding a respected college professor sitting at the kitchen table after spending a night with Mark – a situation for which there seem to be no standard social formula for dealing with.  Signs soon emerge of a dark past, and when his Italian mother Isabella visits, we observe a brittle relationship made embarrassingly public which James tries to help along with a misguided act of self-sacrifice.

Jess is the counterpoint to Mark in James’ life.  She is stable, reliable and secure, totally committed to her music but happy to have James as her non-musical partner.  Mark however has an element of the predatory gay about him and the question about his plans for James begin to trouble the reader.  It is not for me to spoil the book by disclosing the subsequent events, but we already know from the opening Prologue that Mark will feature in James’ life for years to come.

I would not normally care about these people enough to want to read about them.  However, Naomi Alderman’s skill as a writer is to create compelling personalities which make the reader want to turn the page to see what happened next.  We find ourselves drawn into this set of relationships, believing that the next conversation or encounter could be of crucial importance.  

As the story develops there is tragedy and drama in abundance, but the story does not depend on this, but rather the fine descriptions of the progress of the relationships – Mark and James, James and Jess, Mark and his mother, Mark and Simon’s sister Nicola.

This is altogether a very fine novel and suggests that in producing such a good second novel that Naomi Alderman will be featuring in book review sites like this for years to come.

Book Details

Title:   The Lessons

Author:   Naomi Alderman

Publication:   Penguin Viking (15 April 2010), Paperback, 279 pages

ISBN:   978-0670916290 / 0670916293