8th Jun 2011
The Lessons by Naomi Alderman
With so many organisations identifying her as one to watch for the future, this follow-up novel must have been eagerly anticipated, and I’m sure they would have been pleased to find out that The Lessons continues to explore many similar themes to the successful début.
This story is told from the point-of-view of James Stieff, as he takes his place at Oxford University and falls in with a seemingly glamorous and enchanting crowd. At the heart of the group is Mark Winters, described on the back cover as “dissolute, astonishingly, heartbreakingly rich and pitilessly cruel”.
Mark is as volatile as he is charming, but seems to hold what is beautifully (and accurately) referred to as a “dark power” over James. Their lives are indulgent and hedonistic, and yet they are so vulnerable. I immediately started to imagine all the scenes as Ryan McGinley photographs.
The book is split in to three parts; The Lies, The Trappings and the much shorter The Lessons. The first documents the wild years that the group spent living together in Oxford, growing more dependent on each other and less in touch with reality.
The second part skips forward a few years, when the group have moved on, and have succeeded in building their own separate lives. The final chapters see the group brought back together and then blown apart again by a brutal tragedy.
The characters are all quite unpredictable and unstable, and I constantly felt tense when reading because I was anxious about what they were going to do next.
Having said that, there aren’t really any twists as such, Alderman builds up to the big events throughout the chapters, and there is always a sense of foreboding. I knew what was coming when we got to the big climax, or at least I feared it was coming.
The theme of religion is very big in this book; Mark is encompassed by his entwined ideas of Catholicism and sacrifice. There is also an interesting commentary on wealth, not just people with a lot of money but unimaginable, infinite wealth.
A thread of sex and sexual desire becomes more and more prominent throughout the story. I wouldn’t say this is a dirty book by any stretch, but there is some powerful, beautiful imagery that I’ve yet to get out of my head.
Recommended for: People who like dark fiction about sexy young people.