06 February 2006

Ian McEwan's Saturday

Guest writer Bill Jones, political blogger over at SKIPPER, has posted his review of Ian McEwan's latest novel Saturday over at the MANTEX site.

Henry Perowne is a brilliant and successful neuro-surgeon, living luxuriously in central London. After performing an operation to remove a tumour on a pituitary gland, he marries his beautiful patient Rosalind, and they have two luminous and accomplished children: Theo a gifted blues musician and Daisy, a brilliant poet. Both children have been inspired to a degree in their callings by Rosalind's father, John Grammaticus, one of the leading poets of the day.

Saturday - Click for details and orders at Amazon.co.ukHenry is comfortably in control of his enviable life, with its enviable accretions of beautiful house, Mercedes sports car, property abroad and the rest; the only aspect which casts a shadow is his mother, stricken with Alzheimer's. Into this relative idyll - on the Saturday morning of the massive 2002 demonstration in London against the Iraq War - enters an unwelcome event plus three related dramatis personae from the criminal classes whose BMW Perowne bumps on his way to a needle squash game.

The novel is an account of how this crucial 24 hours in the life of the Perowne family works out. En route we encounter, in true McEwan style (remember The Innocent?), two outbursts of violence - the final, extreme one providing the gripping climax of the book in which the themes of family, parental love and group solidarity are juxtaposed with those of social inequality and cultural impoverishment leading towards a kind of concluding moral coda signifying the obligation well-off citizens have towards even those who would inflict pain and humiliation as their revenge for being excluded and despised. Quite possibly Iraqi dictators or insurgents, as well as violent criminals are implied as occupants of the latter category.

McEwan engages thoughout in trademark activities like the meditations which precede, accompany, and follow just about every step in the progress of the book. We have a passionate argument for intervention to end the bestial regime of the Iraq dictator together with an equally robust rejection of invasion; reminding us that the moral reasons for going to war - if disarming phantom WMD is discounted - were formidable and well known before the tanks rolled in. On the evening drive back from seeing his mother, Perowne gets caught in a traffic jam and -

He tries to see it, or feel it, in historical terms, this moment in then last decade of the petroleum age, when a nineteenth century device is brought to final perfection in the early years of the twenty-first; when the unprecedented wealth of the masses at serious play in the unforgiving modern city makes for a sight that no previous age could have imagined. Ordinary people! Rivers of light! He wants to see it as Newton might, or his contemporaries, Boyle, Hooke, Wren, Willis - those clever, curious men of the English Enlightenment who for a few years held in their minds nearly all the world's science.

It is a measure of the author's achievement that these digressions never seem to impede - as they so easily could - the narrative progress of the book: on the contrary they add to its fascination. Not only do we have the story and the characters and the novel's messages, we also get McEwan’s insights into topics such as: the current state of society, of literature, the psychology of squash matches, jazz, popular music, parenthood and marriage. Because the author has such an interesting intellect, we enjoy this abundance of sharply observed and eloquent discussions.

More especially though, McEwan writes on the work of a neurosurgeon. Henry’s work is central to the book, as is the theme of individual and social health - both mental and emotional. The operation on the young Rosalind, for example, is 'a miracle of human ingenuity' which became possible only after 'a century of failure'. It involves going in 'through the face, to remove the tumour through the nose' and deliver the patient 'back into her life, without pain or infection'. As McEwan’s meticulous sentences take us through this extraordinary triumph 'of technical mastery and concentration', we the readers share his awe at the shaman skills of the modern medicine man.

'Writing at the height of his powers' is a phrase which McEwan reviewers have almost turned into a cliché; but this enormously satisfying novel proves that, like so many clichés, such judgments are usually founded on irrefutable fact.

More MODERN FICTION reviews here.

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Click for details and orders at Amazon.comClick for details and orders at Amazon.co.uk

1 comment:

Bie said...

"Saturday" is an engaging and entertaining read. McEwan tried something bold and different, and he has succeeded. It is an elegant and absorbing novel that reminds the odd rhythms of everyday life, the sights and sound and smells of the city.