Monday, December 28, 2009
Saturday by Ian McEwan spans the course of a single Saturday in the life of London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. It's February 2003 and Henry wakes before dawn. As he stares out his window he sees a bright light that he at first assumes is a comet, but then realizes must be a plane on fire headed into Heathrow. The image and reporting on the plane will follow Henry throughout the course of the day and provide an ominous reminder that it is now a post-9/11 world. This day there is also an enormous protest in London against British involvement in the Iraq War.
Henry Perowne is a wealthy, successful neurosurgeon with a good marriage to a woman he loves and with two children on the verge of independence. His son is a talented blues musician and his daughter, Daisy has been away in Paris, and is about to have a book of poetry published.
The entirety of the novel is spent with Henry's interior monologue and although he has a brilliant understanding of the human brain, he is often mystified by how others think. In addition to the nagging discomfort that the flaming plane and the war protest bring to the otherwise normal day, Henry has a series of one on one scenes with those closest to him.
After meeting a colleague to play racquetball, he has a frightening encounter with three thugs. The leader exhibits a barely perceptible tremor and some speech traits that Henry is able to diagnose as Huntington's. His comments alluding to his observation of the thug's symptoms buy him the time to escape what was certain to be quite a violent episode and Henry goes on with his day.
The evening climaxes in a frightening episode in the Perowne home with the villains reappearing.
Although the unpredictability and uncertainty of the post-9/11 world loom large throughout this story, the theme that stood out more to me was that of the main character's attitude toward fiction as useless. Daisy has given him titles to read and to his credit, Henry does read them but doesn't see the point in inventing things and finds many of the devices in fiction to be unrealistic and overly convenient.
McEwan could be accused to stretching his art to the breaking point in Saturday. Some readers and reviewers have complained that the long, detailed scenes, the obvious political commentary and the structure of the book, with the bones nearly on the outside don't work. I suppose if you were reading this book simply for the story, you could make a case that they don't. I read it with an eye to seeing the detail and delighting in exposure to how it all works and thought it was excellent.
Next up: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
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It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.