Saturday by Ian McEwan

Outside, beyond a wall of thin steel and cheerful creaking plastic, it’s minus sixty degrees and forty thousand feet to the ground. Flung across the Atlantic at five hundred feet a second, you submit to the folly because everyone else does. Your fellow passengers are reassured because you and the others around you appear calm. Looked at a certain way – deaths per passenger mile – the statistics are consoling. And how else attend a conference in Southern California? Air travel is a stock market, a trick of mirrored perceptions, a fragile alliance of pooled belief; so long as nerves hold steady and no bombs or wreckers are on board, everybody prospers. When there’s failure, there will be no half measures. Seen another way – deaths per journey – the figures aren’t so good. The market could plunge.

I decided to reread this novel about two months ago, but then let it sit for a long while on my bedside table. Over the last few years I’ve developed a fear of flying (a particularly inconvenient phobia when you spend most of your time living and working overseas – though I have recently discovered this extremely helpful website) and after the disappearance of flight MH370 I was afraid to open Saturday. I remembered the vivid description of a plane crash in the first few pages, and wasn’t sure I was ready to let those images enter my head. I eventually realised that reading the news in the mornings was much more detrimental to my peace of mind than reading books, and so took Saturday out onto the balcony with my tea and toast. Instead of being frightened by Ian McEwan’s imaginings of a plane going down I was moved by them – by the beauty of his language, and also by the similarities between the character’s fears and my own. In Saturday the protagonist – a doctor with a very rational way of looking at the world – is somewhat mystified by literature. He wonders what purpose prose serves, what meaning people find in poetry. For me, one of the greatest things about a novel is its ability to show us who we are, to put into words feelings and experiences we have but are unable to describe. Saturday does this very well – through the close-up examination of a single life McEwan gives us a wonderful portrait of larger human experience.

Saturday is set in London on the 15th of February, 2003. The novel follows – from third person limited perspective – successful neurosurgeon Henry Perowne as he goes about his day. The writing is stream of consciousness in style, and the structure reminded me strongly of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, though Perowne’s thoughts are pragmatic and political rather than poetic, and he is buying fish instead of flowers. Perowne plays squash with his anaesthetist, visits his elderly mother, and preps for a family dinner – all of this against the backdrop of an enormous protest against the impending Iraq war. In the midst of his errands Perowne has an unsettling encounter with Baxter, an aggressive and unstable man who Perowne suspects of suffering from a serious neurological disorder. This moment leads to a significant twist in plot and tone later in the novel – a sinister, dramatic thread that is something of a trademark of McEwan’s style.

I have only read a few of McEwan’s novels, but it is this taking of events and suddenly turning them in another, darker direction that I have enjoyed most (his books might best be described as literary thrillers). In Saturday I also liked the sustained stream of consciousness style across a short span of time, and the way McEwan balances and links exterior storytelling with Perowne’s internal dialogue.

I did appreciate the prominent political backdrop – as a post 9/11 novel Saturday paints a good picture of Western uncertainty in the early 2000s. However, I felt that there were moments where the story served as too much of a vehicle for debate about the war (and while both sides were represented, Perowne does seem to lean a little towards the right). I also thought that the technical details were somewhat overdone. McEwan observed a real neurosurgeon for two years while writing the novel, and the surgical descriptions certainly add a lot of depth to his main character. After a few paragraphs of brain surgery, however, I started to get a little bored. Finally, I found it hard at times to relate to the characters; perhaps because of their success and privilege (none of the main characters seem to have any real flaws). Perowne is a doctor, his wife a lawyer, his twenty-three year old daughter a published poet, and his son a successful blues musician. I found myself feeling a little inadequate in their wake.

Overall, however, Saturday is a thoughtful, relatable, and compelling novel, which reads just as well the second time as the first. Highly recommended.

Saturday was published in 2005, and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. Other novels by Ian McEwan include Enduring Love, Atonement, and Amsterdam.

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