Book reviews: 42 of the best new novels of 2022
Ian McEwan’s novels are often “simplified and controlled investigations” into specific historical moments, Johanna Thomas-Corr said in The new statesman: 1950s Germany the innocent; the Thatcherite 1980s in A child in time. But his 18th is very different – “fuller and more protean” than any of his predecessors. It is also, “in my opinion, McEwan’s best novel in 20 years”. Its protagonist, Roland Baines, is a baby boomer who bears a strong resemblance to its creator, if its creator “wasn’t a successful novelist”. Roland spent his childhood in Libya, then “attended a public boarding school” in England. And like McEwan, he discovers as an adult that he has a long-lost brother. Yet his life is notable for its lack of direction: he “makes a living as a hotel lounge pianist, occasional tennis coach, and hack.” Humble and wise, Course is “an intimate yet sprawling story about an ordinary man’s consideration of existence”.
As is often the case with the protagonists of McEwan, Roland’s life “revolves” around a single traumatic episode, said Edmund Gordon in the TLS. At 14, he began an affair with his piano teacher, Miss Cornell – a relationship which, while he “isn’t exactly a reluctant participant”, nevertheless hurt him. A second trauma follows in his thirties, when Roland’s German-born wife, Alissa, abandons him and their baby to pursue her ambition of becoming a novelist, Peter Kemp said in The Sunday Times. While Roland remains a single parent, Alissa becomes – somewhat implausibly – “Germany’s greatest writer”. Over the decades, the “social and domestic cavalcade of Roland’s life” unfolds against the backdrop of “memorable world events” – from 9/11 to Covid lockdowns. A “very detailed chronicle of life”, Course is a “feat of strength”.
Still, it has its issues, Claire Lowdon said in The viewer. It’s a novel full of abandoned stories and non-sequences, and McEwan can’t resist those “authoritative newsletters” that have peppered his recent work (“The Profumo Affair Was Only A Year Away “, etc.). Still, Course is always enjoyable, and there’s something to be said for the “newness” of reading a McEwan novel that feels more like “a Jonathan Franzen.” At 74, his desire to try new things is impressive. “Despite the ramblings and hasty correctives, here is a whole unruly life between the covers of a single book: a literary feat of undeniable majesty.”