Review – The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

I must confess to having a penchant for this “Brideshead” style of novel set in an esteemed academic environment with a group of quirky, privileged characters who adopt and mould a less wealthy, more vulnerable  individual.  “Brideshead Revisited” and “The Secret History” rank among my favourite novels and I guess it is comforting, as a reader, to quickly recognise the setting/plot and to simply relax and enjoy the ride!

None of characters have particularly attractive personalities and they do, to a certain extent, fall into stereotypes.  Our narrator, James Stieff, a middle class undergraduate at Oxford, finds himself struggling when plunged into the big pond of academic excellence.  He is at his lowest point emotionally when Jess, a gifted music student introduces him to the glittering world of Mark Winters and his chosen circle.  Mark, a flamboyant homosexual, is obscenely rich but his charisma veils emotional instability.  Other members of this cult like group are Franny, a Jewish intellectual, Simon, the would-be politician and Emmanuella, the exotic Spanish student.  Poor ineffectual James doesn’t stand a chance amongst these uber-confident figures and he is swiftly sucked into their hedonistic lifestyle. 

The first half of the novel is mostly concerned with the minutiae of life at Oxford and the author vividly portrays this elitist, ethereal world but there is a sudden change of mood in the second half when our dashing group are torn asunder and have to navigate their way in the real world – they certainly lose some of their sparkle when they are confronted with real life although you do have the impression that poor James can hold his own.  However….things don’t exactly go to plan and you quickly realise that these “firm” friends don’t really know each other at all.  As we approach the denouement, we have a dreadful sense of foreboding as Mark’s behaviour becomes more and more mercurial.

So, what are the lessons to be drawn from this life of ours?  Our narrator James undergoes some sort of inner metamorphosis moving from the negative toned “It is ridiculous to think we can learn anything from so arbitrary an experience as life” to a perhaps more hopeful stance “That man in the mirror is me, I thought.  For good or ill, that’s me.”

The similarities between this novel and “The Secret History”, “Brideshead Revisited” and perhaps Lucie Whitehouse’s “The House at Midnight” are probably  a mixed blessing.  If you don’t like reading about the over-privileged, then this is unlikely  to convert you.  Doubtless some readers will be sorely tempted to compare and contrast recurring themes/characters but by doing so, you will miss out on a real gem of a story.  This isn’t a poor imitation – it lives and breathes with its own singular life.

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  1. Stujallen says:

    i ve look at this like you brideshead favourite of mine and this seems in a similar vein ,great review all the best stu

  2. admin says:

    Stu, it lacks the depth of Brideshead which came through the war backdrop but is still a very good read – reminds me a bit of yuppie 80s style “greed is good” novels – not that I agree with that sort of thing!! ;-)

  3. Verity says:

    Even more keen to read this now…hurry up library and get a copy!

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