A Life Shaped By Trauma, Lessons by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s newest novel breaks down a lot of mores surrounding our culture in the vibrancy of the twentieth century. It is chronologically thematic as much as it is emotionally jarring; McEwan turns the tides of abuse to reflect the rarely seen ways in which men can be just as the victims of emasculation and use by women as women are. This is a book of a life of a man whose confusing sexual and emotional abuse in his childhood becomes a vein that runs through the rest of his experiences and choices, and oftentimes he is not entirely sure as to why he is making the decisions he is – choices sure to self-sabotage his future. 

As a child, Rolan Baines is exposed to manipulative sexual encounters at the hands of his much older piano teacher. To him, they are confounding and even exciting, completely unaware that he was only one of many victims of the predatory female teacher. He reflects on this as an adult trying to raise his son in a consistent and loving environment without his son’s mother who abandoned them to pursue a free literary and artistic life abroad. Every action Baines pursues in his professional, personal, familial, and sexual life seems to stem from a series of abandonments completely rooted in his own trauma. In the search for happiness and his own redemption, he is left with many more questions than answers on a road to disappointment and confusion with what little in his life he finds rewarding. Combine this with unavoidable social, geopolitical, and local events of the 20th Century, and Baines is stuck living with his face just above the surface of the water, trying to keep himself and his son afloat as his past tries to pull him underwater for good. 

I really enjoyed this book. McEwan is back to his lofty prose and complicated interiority that I enjoyed from his earlier novels. As a novelist who often uses the fallout of a striking trauma to guide the deep characterization and events of his stories, this one is a bit more subtle than some of the others. Lessons is a study of a man living in a world where he has found himself surrounded by misandrists that don’t care or respect him, and in many ways, it is his choices based on his past and the events of the world around him that have led him to find himself in a relationship and social quandary after quandary. McEwan’s prose is exquisite, and he can incorporate the events of Baines’ pre-connected world into the modern with ease and grace, but no clear answers for his audience. Being a novel about the abuse and subjugation of men, specifically men that are in touch with their emotional identity after suffering serious traumas and barely making it through in a world that everyone seems to think is built for them, I thought this piece is necessary and timely today. McEwan remains a master, as always.

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