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[381] Saturday – Ian McEwan

” It troubles him to consider the powerful currents and dine-tuning that alter fates, the close and distant influences; the accidents of character and circumstance that cause one young woman in Paris to be packing her weekend bag with the bound proof of her first volume of poems before catching the train to a welcoming home in London . . . ” (1:64)

Set in a pivotal in history that as the War on Iraq unfolds, Saturday chronicles one day in the life of a moral, conscientious man who, despite his optimism and foundations, comes to appreciate life’s fragility as uncertainty rushes in. London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne sets out on his Saturday with a full schedule and a brimming mind. In the fringe of his consciousness are the recent attacks of 9/11, the incipient war with Iraq, and a massive anti-war demonstration taking place that day to protest Bush’s potential attack on Iraq.

Theo’s guitar pierces him because it also carries a reprimand, a reminder of buried dissatisfaction in his own life that contains this inventiveness, this style of being free. The music speaks to unexpressed longing and frustration. (1:28)

The discipline and responsibility of a medical career, compounded by starting a family in his mid-20s have shaped a pristine life for Henry, who is constitutionally bound to love one woman all his life.

Where’s his curiosity? What’s wrong with him? But there’s nothing he can do about himself. He meets the occasional questioning glance of an attractive woman with a bland and level smile. This fidelity might look like virtue or doggedness, . . . (1:41)

Fidelity to him is both obduracy and virtue. But the greater reason is his preference for possession and repetition. Throughout the novel Perowne maintains an ongoing inner dialogue—stream of consciousness—made more complex by current events. He spots a plane ablaze traversing across the sky before dawn, makes love to his wife, picks up seafood from the fishmonger for dinner, plays a game of squash, goes to his son’s blues concert rehearsal, anticipates his poet-in-making daughter’s arrival from Paris, and visits his mother, who is afflicted by a neurodengerative disease.

It’s a condition of the times, this compulsion to hear how it stands with the world, and be joined to the generality, to a community of anxiety. The habit’s grown stronger these past two years, a different scale of news value has been set by monstrous and spectacular scenes. . . . Everyone fears it, but there’s also a darker longing in the collective mind, a sickening for self-punishment and a blasphemous curiosity. (4:180)

His thoughts always engage his family and patients, who reveal more about this person as a surgeon, a father, a son, and a husband. Whereas he is an expert in examining brains, he is not endowed with the same acumen to understand minds. This is the brilliant point of the novel, which relies on the neurosurgeon’s eyes to dictate a view of a world gone mad with terror and the quest for a semblance of its former identity—and sanity. A minor accident, as he drives across a road officially closed to traffic during the anti-war rally, sets in train a sequence of events that impose imminent danger to his family.

McEwan builds many layers of reality from small details. Perowne’s a day in life serves as some metaphor for the quality of a man’s life, but also for what has so recently stunned the world and left it shaken, unconsoled, and irretrievably uncalmed. In a way, Perowne and his family have been assaulted, then left to deal with the repercussions of violence. McEwan doesn’t force his political view on readers but keeps politics at bay, allowing it to intertwine with his protagonist’s mind. Pondering on ideas of fate, life’s fragility and uncertainty, Saturday laments how even one with mental calculation are no measure for a world forever altered by insane circumstances. Written with precision, it proceeds with a serene tension into very different territory where the most secure existence is ringed by sinister possibilities.

289 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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4 Responses

  1. I didn’t love this book, but I certainly thought about it long after I’d finished. McEwan is subtle that way.

    • It’s written with a cold precision of a doctor’s surgery skill—and that’s exactly what his protagonist is. It’s a modern approach to stream of consciousness in a city that Virginia Woolf has perfected the skill in Mrs. Dalloway—London.

  2. I bought this at the library book sale last summer, but haven’t gotten to it yet. Have been thinking of reading McEwan soon. Not sure if it will be this one or On Chesil Beach…

    • Hmmm…actually I like both. Last year I read The Comfort of Strangers and The Cement Garden—both freaked me out and I thought McEwan is not for me.

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