"I was trying to capture the white noise of the man moving through the city on his day off work." -- Ian McEwan
Novel by English author Ian McEwan. Published in 2005 by Jonathan Cape, Random House. 320 p., ISBN: 0224072994.
What it's about (without spoilers):
The Saturday in question is February 15th, 2003. A huge anti-war march takes place in London. Hundreds of thousands of people are protesting against the invasion of Iraq. Our hero, Henry Perowne, is a brain surgeon who may or may not be on the brink of a mid-life crisis. He probably isn't. We follow him for twenty-four hours as he negotiates his way through a London packed with threats. Flaming hunks of metal come hurtling though the sky. The roads are chaos. Alarming characters from the capital's underworld come chasing after him. His father-in-law arrives. His son becomes an adult. His daughter has some life-changing news. He loses a game of squash.
It seems, at first, that nothing at all wrong with Henry Perowne. He's not even ordinarily comfortable. His profession is one which is cited as an example of genius. He loves his beautiful, gifted wife. She loves him back. His son and daughter are both extremely talented and original artists. He lives in a luxurious townhouse; drives a ridiculously expensive car. You might be sizing him up, like I did, and asking the obvious question: "ah, but is he really happy"?. Sorry to disappoint but yes, he really is happy.
Tales of happy families do not make for great reading. There wouldn't be much to get your teeth into if Ian McEwan's latest novel recounted a day in the life of a happy man. Fear not. It is not inner turmoil that makes Saturday readable, rather all the external chaos which infringes upon the mind of an otherwise boringly contented man. The reader feels as though he is watching Perowne scuttle across London on this important day, as if he were running an obstacle course. He tries to keep his head down: he doesn't take part in the demonstration, he refuses to postpone his habitual squash game. He does all he can to preserve his perfect bubble, and succeeds up to a point. As the novel progresses, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain oblivious to the happenings around him.
Henry Perowne becomes plagued with thoughts of the impending war in Iraq. He feels he's being cajoled by others - his children, his colleagues - into having an opinion on the issue. Mcewan has said that Saturday was his attempt to write about September 11th. Being a novelist and not a journalist, he does so in a rather round-about way. Along with breathtaking descriptive passages, psychoanalysis is what the author does best. The result, then, is not statements on the state of the world in 2005, but the more subtle study of the impact global events can have on the small, tidy world of one of its citizens.
This is not the only threat to Henry Perowne's glossy bubble. A minor road accident leads to an encounter with Baxter, the spokesman for that underworld I referred to earlier. The man is not well. Perowne's professional skills complicate the situation further. In the novel's evening, Baxter presents a dreadful threat to both Henry's perfect family life and his successful professional life. I want you to read the book, so I'm not telling you what happens.
What's wrong with it:
There are flaws in the novel. There were a couple of moments when I found myself thinking things like "bloody hell, when's he going to have his lunch?". Writing three hundred pages about one day is not an easy task, but Ian McEwan does a grand job on the whole. This is a problem of plot and not style. Another thing I found difficult were the extended, detailed descriptions of neurosurgery. It's commendable that the author researched his subject so well - spending a lot of time watching Neil Kitchen, a real-life brain surgeon work. Still, a little tiring to read. There are also a few rather unlikely plot twists. Do we really believe that a poem could convince a mentally-ill petty criminal to change his bad ways?
What's right with it:
Despite these weak moments, I greatly enjoyed Saturday. Ian McEwan is one of the most gifted writers of our time. His talent with words redeems any criticisms I have. This novel is worth reading, even if it is only to enjoy the craftsmanship of an author who has mastered his art. It is fascinating to see a writer who spends so much of his texts analysing his characters' mental problems to take the next step and see what might be physically wrong with people's brains. Atonement covered a vast time span of almost a century, while Saturday recounts the events of a single day. That both novels are so beautifully written is testament to Mcewan's skill.
The Guardian 15/01/05
The book itself