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Onyx reviews: Saturday by Ian
For some people, life in the post 9/11 era is fraught with worries about the
future and fear of the present. That event brought home the realization that, in
an instant, an unpredictable incident can end life or change it irrevocably.
Early one Saturday morning two years after the terrorist attacks, London
neurosurgeon Henry Perowne awakens to witness an eerie sight from his bedroom
window. What at first appears to be a meteor turns out to be a burning airplane
streaking through the predawn sky. His mind runs the gamut of possibilities, but
preeminent among them is the fear of another terrorist incident. He’s unsure
what to do—call emergency services? Wake his wife? Paralyzed, he worries that
he has done nothing while watching innocent people die. The event shatters his
sense of well being and his belief in the beauty of the order of the universe.
Saturday is Perowne’s day, when he normally indulges his favorite pastimes.
This day, though, starts off on the wrong footing and gets worse. An immense
demonstration against the impending war in Iraq later that day reinforces his
qualms about the state of the world, though he ultimately discovers that there
was nothing sinister about what he saw. Still, the burning aircraft—which
punctuates his day via various news reports—proves to be an omen. Before the
day is over, another unexpected incident balloons out of control, putting his
entire family at risk.
By the time Perowne has an unsettling conversation about Iraq with his son,
makes love to his wife Rosalind—a successful newspaper lawyer—and departs
for a squash match with one of his colleagues, readers understand a great deal
about the man. He is the voice of science in his family, intimately familiar
with peoples’ brains, but unable to understand their minds. His son Theo is a
prodigiously talented blues musician, and his daughter Daisy is about to publish
her first book of poetry. Daisy challenges her father by forcing him to read
literary classics, which they argue about at length. Perowne is irritated by
stories, frustrated by their neatness and perfection, calling such masterpieces
as Madame Bovary “fairy tales.” With world events as disturbing as they are,
what need is there for made-up stories?
Daisy’s literary successes have caused a three-year estrangement with her
maternal grandfather, John Grammaticus, an award-winning poet who has been
suffering prolonged writers block. Formerly the guardian of her literary
upbringing, Grammaticus now exhibits signs of jealousy from his French enclave,
where he has gone through a series of increasingly young wives and copious
amounts of alcohol in recent years.
En route to the squash court, Perowne circumnavigates the crowds massing for
the protest, and has a minor accident while trying to find a parking spot. The
hoodlums in the other vehicle react with unexpected violence, and only through a
risky gambit that humiliates one of the thugs in front of his cohorts does
Perowne escape the incident unscathed—but terribly shaken.
He carries this unsettled feeling with him to the squash court, where he
behaves with uncharacteristically poor humor. He battles his anesthetist friend
as if the very survival of the natural order depends on the game’s outcome.
Following the match, he shops for the evening meal and visits his
Alzheimer's-afflicted mother in a nursing home, which does nothing to settle
him. A trip to see his son’s group perform is one of the high spots of his
On top of everything else, Grammaticus and Daisy are scheduled to arrive from
the continent for supper. The family has hopes for reconciliation, though in
their experience “an evening with John will go bad somehow.” Just how bad
none of them could predict, for the fallout from Perowne’s fender-bender
extends into his private life and a small act of terrorism is visited upon his
This book may draw comparisons to Ulysses and Perowne to that book’s
protagonist, Bloom, who wanders through Dublin on one eventful day, but McEwan
is far clearer and accessible than Joyce. “When anything can happen,
everything matters” seems to be the take-home message from McEwan’s powerful
novel. The story is told primarily through the stream-of-consciousness of his
protagonist, a man in midlife, still at the height of his career but adjusting
to the changes in his personal life arising from the development and successes
of his children. He tends to see life from a scientific, non-theistic point of
view—and it will come to him as a great surprise when the resolution to a
crisis turns on a love of the poetry of Matthew Arnold.
In spite of his scientific rigor, the most powerful scenes characterizing
Perowne are those in which he describes his relationship with his wife of
twenty-five years. “What a stroke of luck that the woman he loves is also his
wife,” he thinks. He has no curiosity about other women. His fidelity arises
from neither virtue nor doggedness, because he exercises no real choice.
Familiarity excites him more than sexual novelty.
For a writer, one of the great challenges is in how best to dole out the
fruits of his research. Clearly, McEwan has immersed himself in neurosurgical
science to the extent that it becomes Perowne’s vocabulary. He regards much
that he sees wrong with the world as a symptom of brain illness, something that
might, with time, be curable. McEwan walks a fine line between creating a
believable, knowledgeable character and overwhelming readers with foreign
technical details. He also has an impressive knowledge of music and music
history, as well as literature, both of which he uses to inform the relationship
between Perowne and his children.
Perowne’s reaction to the violent confrontation in his home is at once
unexpected and perfectly logical. In spite of all that he’s been through, he
still has the scientist’s need to understand and the surgeon’s need to fix.
Saturday is one of those rare achievements—a literary novel with a strong
plot and an immediate and gripping impact. McEwan may well be one of the finest
living authors in the English language. Over the course of nine novels, he has
developed an economy of language and skill at characterization that allows him
to produce fairly short novels (Saturday is less than 300 pages long) so packed
with detail and insight that they seem far longer and richer. Readers will not
regret spending a Saturday with Henry Perowne.
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