Review | Sexual abuse casts a long shadow in Ian McEwan’s ‘Lessons’

Readers are drawn to Ian McEwan’s beautiful novel.Atonement20 years ago, the writer’s strange work has moved away.

His last three books are modest, fantastical stories, bugs with strange wit. “in shortFor example, there was an homage to “Hamlet” narrated by an inspired fetus. “Machines like me“A man’s story told by a sex robot. And”CockroachBoris Johnson and Gregor Samsa collided together.

It is safe to return now.

McEwan’s new novel, “Lessons“A profound demonstration of his remarkable skill. Although the story bears some parallels with the author’s life, it is not a romance. Instead, it depicts a common man, a failed writer. , which spans more than seven decades of intimate and international crises. And for a writer known for brevity, “Lessons” is also his longest novel. Here, finally, McEwan — who in 1998 “Won the Booker Award forAmsterdam” – luxuriates in all the space it needs to record the mysterious interplay of will and chance, time and memory.

At the center of this story is Roland Benz. For many years he thought of himself as a professional poet – or at least a potential poet. We meet him in 1986 when his wife, a fellow writer, has disappeared, leaving him and their child behind. The police suspect foul play, but Roland has no reason to doubt his wife’s explanation. “Don’t try to find me,” she wrote on a note on her pillow. “I love you but it’s for good. I’m living the wrong life.”

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Her sudden disappearance, combined with the exhaustion of caring for a child and the anxiety of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, pushes Roland’s mind back to earlier betrayals. When he was a 14-year-old student at an English boarding school, his piano teacher, Miss Mary Cornell, groomed him, seduced him and kept him in her home as a sex slave. Roland knows on some level that the two women – his former piano teacher and his errant wife – are not the same, and neither are their actions, but he sees both of them ruining his life at a turning point. Can’t help but blame for.

What follows is an extraordinarily skillful portrayal of the way a too-early sexual experience permanently stains Roland’s romantic expectations. In her painful memories of those months, we see Miss Cornell’s perverse desires with only a boy’s pride and enthusiasm. To us, she’s a manipulator, but to the young Roland—retreating to a world poised for nuclear annihilation by Kennedy or Khrushchev—Miss Cornell herself looks like salvation.

When their relationship ends, Roland is burdened by a terrible sense of his own moral guilt and a shattered sense of personal worth. “It never occurred to her,” McEwan writes, “that her behavior was mean, despicable,” but years later an adult lover sees its effect clearly: “This piano teacher . . . she “recreated the mind.”

All that unresolved psychological damage comes to an end when Roland’s wife leaves him. Various forms of shame cling hopelessly to his mind, effectively rendering him listless. It doesn’t help that his absent wife finds the literary success he’s long dreamed of. Worse, she becomes one of Europe’s most famous writers, a perennial Nobel Prize candidate, while Roland and his son fade into the footnotes of her biography.

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But McEwan never loses track of Rowland. “Lessons” move through time the way a rising tide washes ashore: a cycle of advancing and receding, giving us a vivid and complete sense of Roland’s life. He remains unattached, unattached, often unemployed – tragically devoted to a teenage fantasy that was never valid to begin with. “How easy it was to live an unchosen life,” he thinks.

He becomes a type of Zelig character, undergoing significant changes in the late 20th century. McEwan writes, “In a vastly expansive mood,” Roland occasionally reflected on the events and accidents, personal and global, trivial and momentary, that had shaped and determined his existence. His case was no special one – all destinies are shaped like this.

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Indeed, even more than McEwan’s previous novels, “Lessons” is a story that embraces its historical context so completely that it calls into question the artificial timelessness of much contemporary fiction. Roland may be fictional, but he is deeply immersed in the social and political developments that have shaped all our lives, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the realignment of Eastern Europe, Margaret Thatcher’s transformation of the British economy and, of course, the Covid pandemic. Disease .

Rowland, clearly channeling the 74-year-old McEwan, thinks “it would be a shame to ruin a good story by turning it into a lesson.” Looking back on his life, “When he asked himself if he wished none of this had happened, he had no answer.” But from the point of view of old age, the great chain of cause and effect stretches with instructive clarity behind Roland. A cursed marriage blessed him with a wonderful son. Years of loneliness finally led to true happiness. Could an evil stone be safely removed from the crumbling structure of his life?

Some readers may feel that “The Lesson” is too stingy with the drama, especially given the length of the book, but I think it shows the strange power of the novel form. There is something close to the divine in this process of embroidering the whole cycle of a person’s life with threads in every direction. Here is a narrative that moves with such patient dedication to the salient details of a common man’s experience that by the end I knew Rowland better than most of my real friends.

Ron Charles Reviews and writes books. Book Club Newsletter For the Washington Post.

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One thought on “Review | Sexual abuse casts a long shadow in Ian McEwan’s ‘Lessons’

  • October 12, 2022 at 11:21 am

    Top site ,.. amazaing post ! Just keep the work on !


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