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Naomi Alderman: The Lessons

Naomi Alderman went to Oxford University, so it is not surprising that she decided to write an Oxford University novel. The trouble with writing such novels is that many of the best ideas have already been taken. The son of a rich family who is unbalanced has already been done in Brideshead Revisited, the ordinary Oxford student having a homosexual affair with a rich fellow student has been done in The Line of Beauty and the close-knit student group has been done in The Secret History, and I haven’t even mentioned White Heat which, of course, came after Alderman’s novel. This is not to knock this novel which is an excellent novel but, if you have read any of the novels mentioned or seen White Heat, you will definitely have a sense of déjà vu.

Our hero is James Stieff. He comes from a vaguely Church of England, well-off family. His older sister, Anne, had already been to Oxford so he followed in her footsteps, choosing to read physics (we do not know what she read). Like many new students at such universities, he feels somewhat lost at the beginning. Like many of his fellow students, he was top at school and is now just one of many and not the best. Indeed, in his initial physics classes, he struggles but manages to find himself in the middle of the pack, unable to compete with Ivar, a Norwegian, and a couple of others. He is also not able to compete with Ivar as regards the opposite sex, as Ivar has a very sexy girlfriend, a Spanish woman called Emmanuella (actually, she would probably be called Manuela, if she were Spanish). However, he is managing to keep pace till, while out running, he slips on some ice and damages his leg. His one week out of action puts him behind in his physics and he never seems to catch up.

Meanwhile, he meets Jess, a fellow student and also a very good violinist. Eventually, after lots of fits and starts, they begin an affair. It is Jess who introduces him to Mark Winters, the very rich, somewhat unbalanced, gay man who is studying theology. Mark has inherited a very large and very well-concealed house from his aunt and invites James, Jess, Emmanuella (no longer with Ivar) and a couple of other students to live free of charge with him. Much of the book concerns their adventures together, including Mark’s generosity, wild parties and meeting Mark’s decidedly eccentric mother. As in Brideshead Revisited, there is a slightly sinister Catholic priest who tries to steer Mark onto the strait and narrow and enlists James to help him. Mark’s habits not only include cottaging (he manages to pick up a don who has taught two of the students living in the house; the don will later be arrested and fired, only to get a better job in more enlightened France) but also drugs and alcohol and a frail personality, not helped by the arrival of his mother.

We know from the beginning of the book that James ends up with Mark in Italy and Alderman tells us their post-Oxford stories, which are all slightly messy, particularly as regards Mark and James, and what happens afterwards. The question about James is whether he is a dog, to be lead by Jess, Mark and others, or whether he can find his own way. In short, has he learned his lesson? There is no copyright on ideas for books. Allegedly (and this has not been confirmed) Oscar Wilde said Good writers borrow, great writers steal. Whether Alderman consciously or not took her ideas from the three books mentioned above, it does not really matter, for she does tell a good story and it is clear that she does have a future as a writer.

Publishing history

First published in 2010 by Viking