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The Lessons, By Naomi Alderman
Friday 09 April 2010
Novels about tight-knit groups of university friends were popular in the 1930s and the 1980s, and recently they have been making a comeback. Martin Amis, Lucy Whitehouse, David Nicholls and now Naomi Alderman have all revisited Waugh's Brideshead to a greater or lesser degree, perhaps for the simple reason that economic insecurity makes "framily" more important – especially if the friends in question are richer and more glamorous than you are.
Alderman's second novel begins at a luxury Italian villa filled with food after yet another drug-fuelled orgy ends in tears. How have the narrator, James, and his rich, charismatic lover Mark, come to this? Nothing could be more different, superficially, from Alderman's prize-winning debut, Disobedience, set in the Orthodox Jewish community of North London. Yet it's a mark of her talent that, as in her short story "Other People's Gods", underlying themes of exclusion, betrayal, family and religious faith emerge once again.
The "lesson" is what the narrator's friend Mark "has always known: that we are not, in essence, good." Or are we? For although James begins his story of his three years at Oxford with a fall – a physical one that breaks his leg, and causes him to lose confidence – he encounters at least one character who can be called this. His fall includes the possibility of redemption, and salvation.
Current and former Oxbridge students will recognise much. James responds to his tutor's assessment that he's "quite good" by feeling that Oxford life "was always happening somewhere else". He envies the true star of his group of physicists, and is obsessed with his Spanish girlfriend Emmanuella. Rich students stick together, and James isn't rich – just "pretty", which leads him to becoming Jess's lover, and meeting Mark, a rich, spoilt, messed-up Catholic youth. Alderman doesn't put a foot wrong in describing this kind of archetype. While not as melodramatic a novel as The Secret History or The House At Midnight, here money distorts character, and Mark – whose relationship with his exquisite mother is hilariously horrid – is both the corrupter and the victim. Jess, the loving, the organised and the honest, is his polar opposite. But as James gets sucked into the world of Annulet House, a 42-bedroomed Georgian house set in a dead-end road in Jericho, he enters a world as beautiful and sinister as any in a fairytale.
At times the novel becomes brittle to the point of self-parody, and The Lessons will certainly annoy many who are automatically hostile to Oxbridge and elitism. It spoils nothing to say that James's journey is essentially the same as Waugh's Sebastian Flyte, but reversed, and that Brideshead Revisited is given a timely corrective. Alderman's sharpness of observation punctures the parties, sex, drugs, eccentrics and conversation while never quite descending into satire. The struggle to keep going academically punctuates the dreaminess, as does James's parents dour refusal to foot any more bills, but then Mark's flamboyant homosexuality forces the group into a cruel deception.
The Lessons has more insight into human nature than Martin Amis's The Pregnant Widow, and is more intellectually sustained. Underlying all these fictions about an elite group of friends, one can detect the legend of King Arthur and his round table, joined in temporary fellowship but doomed to discord and tragedy. This is a second novel from a young writer of huge talent, ambition and energy and, despite falling into an over-familiar genre, it is a pleasure to read.
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