Ian McEwan has written another Booker Prize-worthy novel. It is the story of a man—the whole story of a man, from childhood to the end of a very long life. I thought often of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels, which in three or four books tell the story of his singular protagonist. But here, the story is all in one book, starting in adolescence and running all the way through old age.
The book opens somewhat in the middle. A relatively young man, Roland Baines, is sleeping with his infant son, Lawrence, on his chest. The wife and mother, Alissa, has disappeared without a trace, just walked out when nobody was looking.
With all the time he has on his hands to ruminate while caring for their infant son, we soon meet Roland as a schoolboy, thinking back on the age of fourteen when he was sexually preyed upon by his piano teacher, Miriam Cornell. Eventually we are not exactly sure what to make of this, for she clearly cared for him. But was it because of the sex, or because she saw a concert pianist in the making? She was convinced he was that kind of a talent, and we must decide for ourselves how self-centered and outrageous we find her conduct on many levels. I’ve never been in a book club, but I have to think the discussion would be endlessly entertaining here. But someone would have to watch the clock, because there is so much more to this book.
In the early going, we get a stretch of vignettes that tease the intellect—who’s who, and who will be whom eventually? At first it struck this reader as an erudite combination of high-wire acrobatics and hiding the ball. McEwan is so much better than that, I kept thinking, but he’d earned the benefit of the doubt with all his other books. And he delivers. By the end of Part One, we know we are in the hands of a master.
Along the way, Roland becomes his own man, headed for a musical career if he wants it but with a teenager, Lawrence, to raise. He travels to see his former mother-in-law, who tells him of Alissa’s visit after she left, when she accused her mother of being a bitterly disappointed writer who couldn’t “tolerate [a] second-class life.” But instead of learning from her mother’s experience, Alissa:
“followed me, copied me, became me. She too was sour on life. Couldn’t find a publisher for her two books. . . . She too deceived herself in marriage. She thought you were a brilliant bohemian. Your piano playing seduced her. She thought you were a free spirit . . . a fantasist [who] can’t settle to anything. ‘He’s got problems in his past he won’t even think about. He can’t achieve anything. And nor can I. Together we were sinking. Then there was the baby and we sank faster.’”
Caught up in the politics of the Eighties, he travels to be there when the Berlin Wall comes down. He can’t help looking for Alissa in the crowd—it’s just a few years after she left, but it’s over—and he spots her. She tries her best to say why she left, and they pass without significant recriminations. Until he turns back.
“[He] changed his mind and went back to her. ‘I’ll tell you your story. You wanted to be in love, you wanted to be married, you wanted a baby, and it all came your way. Then you wanted something else.”
He invites her to come visit to see her son, but she says that’s not possible. “I’m just starting another . . . a book. If I saw him it would all be over.” Leaving our hero to return to the duty of raising their son, while she expands on what eventually becomes a serious and successful publishing pedigree.
As the narrative moves back and forth in time, McEwan peels the onion of what happened to young Roland. He quit school as soon as he reached the age where he could, turning his back on both Miriam Cornell and the beseeching headmaster, taking a job washing dishes in a pub and another digging ditches, insisting on being paid the full rate the grown men were paid because he was faster than any of them. He’d even met a girl his age.
At the end of Part Two, just over halfway through the story of Roland’s life, Daphne, the lover and friend with whom he has essentially built a life as co-parents, with Lawrence and Daphne keeping separate houses because he can’t commit, leaves to try again with her first husband. No recriminations.
Roland goes on, continues making a decent living playing piano in his steady gig at a local restaurant and teaching it some, playing tennis regularly with his buddies, burying one parent and then another, and aging.
He takes a shot at dealing with the memory and enigma of Miriam Cornell, in scenes that are as interesting and true as any others in this first-rate writer’s vast oeuvre. Several chapters ended in such a satisfying way, I couldn’t help thinking how many very good writers may well have looked at them as a satisfying enough way to end the novel.
Not McEwan, not here. There’s much more left in life for our hero. But I’m not one for spoilers.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .