Early on in The Lesson, Caldwell Turnbull deliberately positions his book at a specific place on the literary spectrum. In the novel, aliens, a species called the Ynaa, arrive and set up shop on the US Virgin Island of St. Thomas. One of the main supporting characters, Jackson, is a literature professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. In discussing the class, Turnbull mentions that mainstream literary writers and pulpier scifi writers took different tacks in approaching the knowledge that aliens were now on Earth; while the scifi writers went at it head on, the literary writers tended to have the aliens off screen and focus on what their presence did to the lives of their characters. The Lesson opens as the intersecting lives of several characters are in imminent crisis which has nothing obvious to do with the impending first contact. Then it skips to years past the contact and continues to follow the lives of those characters. So it seems like he is staking out a mainstream approach; and yet, in that he involves several alien characters, he is unwilling to abandon the scifi approach. Most of my favorite writing occupies this liminal space between genres, so this boded well for my experience of the book. It mostly delivered on that promise.
The novel opens with that college professor and his wife on the verge of divorce; he contemplates an affair with one of his MFA students, while she is in love with her female boss but unable to process it. They rent the lower half of their house to a grandmother who is raising two children. One of those kids, Derek, and Patrice, the daughter of the professor, are the closest thing to main characters as the book has. At the beginning of the book Derek and Patrice are in love with each other. Once the book jumps forward in time Derek is in Jackson’s class and working for Mera who is the Ynaa most capable of passing for human and has a key role both in the purpose the Ynaa have for being on Earth, and in trying to keep the humans satisfied even as the Ynaa perpetrate murder and are dismissive of humans. Derek, Jackson and the rest deal with both the effects of that alien presence and their own issues as the novel progresses.
The main theme is colonialism, and Turnbull handles it well; subtly but with force. The writing is strong throughout and it builds to a brutal conclusion that is well earned. The characters are believably drawn. An all around good book. I don’t usually read first contact fiction, but recently I’ve read two, this and the also good Axiom’s End. While neither pushed the subgenre higher up my priority list, I liked them both quite a bit. I liked this one a little more. I liked the combo maintream/scifi approach over the pell mell dash through the actual first contact itself.
Other Stuff 2020 13/35
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