Books I Read in March 2023

Lessons Ian McEwanLessons by Ian McEwan spans the life of Roland Baines, born shortly after the Second World War. Taking in several major world crises from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Chernobyl disaster to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as intimate domestic events, ‘Lessons’ is a sprawling epic and easily McEwan’s longest novel. Some elements of Roland’s early life are strongly autobiographical, including his childhood spent partly in Libya and his discovery late in life that he has a half-brother, as McEwan did in 2002. However, it is the repercussions from the piano lessons Roland received at boarding school that have the most significant impact on his life. I read but didn’t review McEwan’s previous novel ‘Machines Like Me’ in 2019 which I didn’t think was among his best work, but I would say that ‘Lessons’ is very much a return to form and genuinely engrossing. Many thanks to Vintage Books for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.

Escape Marie le ConteEscape by Marie le Conte is the political journalist’s personal memoir about growing up with the Internet in the 1990s and 2000s when early users interacted on platforms such as LiveJournal, MySpace and MSN. I am a similar age to Le Conte so I can identify with some of her formative experiences of using the internet as a teenager “before everyone else discovered it”. Le Conte brilliantly articulates the uniqueness of the millennial generation who didn’t grow up without the internet completely but also didn’t have 24/7 access via a smartphone as Gen Z do today. Her thesis is more nuanced than simply saying that social media has turned everyone into echo chambers. One of the biggest changes in the last 20 years is a growing awareness of privacy issues and public shaming, which means everyone needs to present a single public online identity that’s acceptable to family and friends as well as current or future employers (hello to any of mine if you’re reading this!) so the concept of going online to “escape” doesn’t really exist anymore when everyone else is there too. It’s a sobering and nostalgic book that provides a lot of food for thought.

Romany and Tom Ben WattRomany and Tom by Ben Watt is the second memoir by the Everything But The Girl star. Watt detailed the life-threatening auto-immune disease which nearly killed him in his 1996 memoir ‘Patient’ and his second book is about his parents: Glaswegian jazz bandleader Tommy Watt and actress and journalist Romany who met in 1957. The structure of the book is very effective, beginning with Romany and Tom in their old age and Watt’s awkward realisation in the early 2000s that he needed to assume the role of being their carer, before looking back at earlier events in their lives which shaped their sometimes tempestuous marriage. Romany and Tom’s individual characters are very well-drawn, particularly where life’s disappointments are concerned following career success. This is an excellent understated memoir.

Demon Copperhead Barbara KingsolverLonglisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver is a modern retelling of ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens set in southwest Virginia in the 1990s. Demon Copperhead is the nickname of Damon Fields who is born in a trailer to an alcoholic teenage mother and taken into foster care after she dies. I haven’t read ‘David Copperfield’ so it’s likely that there are nuances and parallels with specific characters and events that I missed, although it’s still possible to see the more general Dickensian tropes, particularly where messages about compassion and depictions of poverty are concerned. The danger of using ‘David Copperfield’ as an inspiration is that some elements of the plot can appear clichéd. However, Kingsolver demonstrates a lot of empathy for her characters, and the book is a powerful examination in its own right of the devastating impact of the OxyContin epidemic. Many thanks to Faber and Faber for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.

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