Viking £12.99 from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030

The Lessons, By Naomi Alderman

'Brideshead' is revisited in this novel about a gay Oxford undergrad and his ambivalent acolyte

Oxford is a city of ghosts. Not the jump-in-front-of-you Ghost Tour variety, but the ever-present yet almost-never-seen sort. From Jude the Obscure to Inspector Morse, countless spirits drift across quads. Looming over all is Lord Sebastian Flyte.

Naomi Alderman is, evidently, not afraid of ghosts. She courts them and flirts with them and defies them in her darkly seductive second novel, The Lessons, which is set in the last days of yuppie Oxford, and ruled over by Mark Winters. Fantastically rich, flamboyantly Catholic and painfully handsome, Winters could easily – like so many freshers – be a studied pastiche of Sebastian. Just add Aloysius. Here is our first encounter: "A man was leaning in the doorway, with blond hair that flopped into his eyes, wearing a pair of low-slung jeans with a loose banker's shirt: blue stripes, with white collar and cuffs. The outfit, and his demeanour, half-amused half-wary, made him ageless: he could have been a boyish don or a precocious 12-year-old." (Here, Charles Ryder meets Sebastian: "He was entrancing, with that epicene beauty which in extreme youth sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind.")

At first, Charles dislikes Sebastian, as James, the narrator of The Lessons, does Mark. Of course, for both young men, it's the start of a life-long obsession. Whereas Will Self's Dorien is a straight-up retelling, Alderman's book goes far beyond the Brideshead she carefully evokes. For a start, her Mark is ferally and unashamedly gay – lustily cruising fellow students and fusty academics. Alderman writes very hot and very convincing gay sex. Only a good Jewish girl could get bacon in there, as she does. Would a contemporary Sebastian overcome his Catholic abjection sufficiently to get on his knees to do something other than pray? Even if he did, he certainly wouldn't tell all of Oxford, as Mark does.

Whereas Brideshead is basically the story of Charles and Sebastian, The Lessons deals with the complex web of relationships spun between all the people under Mark's influence. As a child lines up insects for a battle, so Mark toys with the emotions and affections of his erstwhile tenants and friends. Here, James discovers Mark's house: "It was enormous – the main section was three storeys tall, with seven windows along each floor, and its façade had faded into mottled beauty." James doesn't understand how such grandeur can hide in the city. "Oxford's full of secrets. It's tradition," replies Jess, his other love match.

Also under Mark's spell are glamorous, Spanish Emmanuelle and her interchangeable Nordic boyfriends; cynical, studious Jewish Franny; and broad-shouldered Simon. Between them, they create and keep countless secrets. Oxford does not prepare them for life outside Mark's house, and none of them ever quite escapes Mark's orbit. Where Charles is a spectator in the tragedy of Sebastian, James is a participant.

In both books, the story is told in flashback from a distant, troubled future. For both narrators, Oxford is not so much the past as the inescapable past-present directing their future. Neither man belongs to the class he finds himself never quite in. Oxford is the biggest character in The Lessons, and the city, so inextricably bound with the university, is the harshest teacher.

James fantasises about his first term: "Oxford was a tree decked with presents; all I had to do was reach out my hand and pluck them. I would achieve a first, I would gain a blue, I would make rich, influential, powerful friends. Oxford would paint me with a thin layer of gold." Actually, he will do only one of these things, and it will be both his making and undoing.

Alderman is a virtuoso on Oxford: "It is a magician dazzling viewers with bustle and glitter, misdirecting our attention... It is old and it is beautiful and it is grand. And it is unfair and it is narrow and it is cold." A perfect city for ghosts. Which Alderman, with great skill and style, finally lays to rest.

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea