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Review: McEwan charts man's travails through years of geopolitical upheaval

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It’s the 1970s and Roland Baines, still wounded by an illicit relationship that triggered a lasting identity crisis, approaches the Berlin Wall. Carrying contraband, he’ll soon pass through a militarized checkpoint that splits the city in two.

This could be the setup for a rousing Cold War thriller, but our man in West Germany isn’t a spy. Rather, this workaday Englishman is the central figure in a thought-provoking, occasionally plodding character study penned by Ian McEwan, the esteemed British author. Expansive and unhurried, “Lessons” explores how one man’s life is shaped by the unpredictable sweep of history.

Roland is likable and directionless, a part-time pianist, part-time tennis instructor with a string of failed relationships. He’s also a delivery system for the author’s existential ruminations. Waiting at the Wall with a prohibited parcel — albums by Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground — destined for some Eastern Bloc acquaintances, Roland sees a border guard and realizes that they’re probably not so different.

“What lay between them,” McEwan writes, “was a vast and invisible network — its interlacing origins mostly forgotten — of invention and belief, military defeats, occupation and historical accident.”

The events that send Roland reeling occur in the 1960s, when he’s at boarding school. Miriam Cornell, his prim-seeming piano teacher, is a predator who seduces the 14-year-old. Later, recalling that their first encounter occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Roland comes to believe that geopolitics played a role. “He was the cocky little sprat who came looking for instant sexual initiation for fear that the world was about to end.”

When Miriam insists that they’ll wed when he’s old enough, Roland flees, never returning to earn his diploma. A few years later, Roland marries another woman, but she soon abandons him and their baby son, plunging Roland into a “lost decade” of self-recrimination. Instead of plotting his own course, he feels like a bit player in “an unchosen life.”

Following Roland from adolescence to old age, “Lessons” is often insightful. Roland downplays the harm done by his piano teacher’s predations, but his subsequent relationships reveal that he’s emotionally stunted, needy and insecure. Meanwhile, few novels are as perceptive about the sustaining nature of sturdy adult friendships. McEwan, too, can be funny, as he demonstrates in a scene with a funeral bagpiper who obliviously marches to the wrong grave.

But his efforts to imbue the proceedings with significance can be heavy-handed. Neither statesman nor solider, Roland is nonetheless impacted by every major crisis of the past seven decades, from Suez Canal-related tensions to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to COVID-19. Instead of trusting readers to get his point — that we’re all carried along by unforgiving historical currents — McEwan forsakes subtext, installing his protagonist as a sort of one-man newsreel whose every action is a response to the headlines of the day.

McEwan, the author of “Atonement,” has dealt with such themes before, but he’s often couched them in clever symbolism — the adversarial canines spotted by a character in “Black Dogs” represent Western democracy and Iron Curtain repression. “Lessons” is engaging, but it lacks the narrative finesse of his finest work.

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