Viking £12.99 (279pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Lessons, By Naomi Alderman

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.

Amanda Craig's novel 'Hearts and Minds' is in Abacus paperback

Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices