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Onyx reviews: Saturday by Ian McEwan

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 day.

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 household.

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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