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February 06, 2006

Saturday - Ian McEwan

Any new novel from Ian McEwan is eagerly awaited. Following on from the complex and satisfying "Atonement", surely his best novel yet, there were obviously high expectations for this. The previous work was an ambitious decade spanning family saga, set before, during and after the Second World War. This book is no less ambitious, but the challenge McEwan has set himself here is to contain the action within a single, contemporary, Saturday.

Henry Perowne is a successful neurosurgeon, living in central London, during the time in February 2003 just before the Iraq war. Weapons of mass destruction are still being hunted in Iraq, and protestors in England are crowding in Trafalgar Square for a mass demonstration against the war.

He wakes early, and walks to the window to survey the city from the window of his stately home. His wife Rosalind, another intelligent and professional person, sleeps on. He witnesses a strange incident with a plane in the sky, and his thoughts turn to the terrorist activities of 11th September 2001, 9/11. Going downstairs he meets up with his son Theo, just in from playing at a late night blues gig, and they listen for news of the plane. Perowne's other child, daughter Daisy, is also an artist, a poet, and she is due back from France for a family reunion that evening. The other main family member coming for dinner will be Rosalind's father Grammaticus, a famous poet, and gifted musician.

Perowne has a few plans for that Saturday, what he expects will be a normal domestic day. He has a squash game with someone from work, he needs to visit his mother who lives in an old people's home, and he has to get some food to cook for dinner. As this is a McEwan book, you know that something strange or sinister is bound to happen. It begins with a violent confrontation in the street, where Perowne narrowly escapes a severe beating from a lowlife called Baxter. Far from relieving any tension, this builds it up to bursting point, and later something really bad involving Baxter does happen.

The plot is merely backdrop though to what this novel is really about. It's about two things. Firstly it's about middle-aged man noticing his body getting older, and coping with the changing stages of the lives of both his children, and his wife's and his own parents. Secondly it's about war and violence, on a global and a local level. McEwan doesn't overuse the book as a soapbox for his own opinions, but he comes very close. The character Perowne argues about the Iraq war with his son and daughter, and makes a few barbed attacks on organised religion. McEwan is of course one of Englands most famous atheists.

The whole story is told through Perowne's thoughts and actions. He is very introspectful, he analyses every single emotion he has. Even when faced with real danger, panic is never an option, he thinks through each action, and the consequences. It's a bit superhuman and unbelievable at times. And at other times, like in detailed descriptions of surgical procedures, and squash games, it's all a bit too detailed to be interesting. But it keeps the story moving forward with a slow inevitability to the end of Saturday, when we know the book will also finish.

There is one scene of Pinterish seediness, frightening and disgusting. The whole pivots around this, and yet is diminished by it. It is unnecessarily unpleasant, though interestingly, echoes a central event in 'Atonement' which has none of these nasty connotations. It's an odd and incongruous episode in the story and should probably have been toned down a little, but then, McEwan devotees would probably be disappointed.

The conclusion leaves the reader not particularly much wiser than when they began. The plot loose ends are neatly tied up in a depressingly bleak midlife-crisis like view of the future, but if you like your politics one-sided and decisive, then this isn't the place to come.

'Atonement' remains a much more fulfilling novel. 'Saturday' will be talked about briefly, and in years to come might be cited as a good cultural reference to the way some people live in the early 21st century, but it's unlikely that people will buy it for their friends and force them to read it. If the dust jacket didn't say Ian McEwan, would the book be on quite so many awards shortlists?

(This is an attempt at a proper review, one that doesn't give away the ending or many of the main plot points. It's much more difficult and time consuming to write like that.)

Posted by se71 at February 6, 2006 09:55 AM


Top notch review, Robert.

Posted by: Cate [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 01:48 PM

Thanks Cate, your feedback is much appreciated.

As you can tell, I loved 'Atonement', and should really write a review of it (thought I had, but cannot find it).

McEwan has been described to me as appealing more to men than women. I'd be interested in what a non-British, non-male thought of it, but I wouldn't really recommend 'Saturday'.

Posted by: se71 [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 9, 2006 02:55 PM

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