Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Saturday by Ian McEwan


Saturday is my “New Classic” book for this round of The Classics Challenge 2009. I chose it after having read Atonement on the recommendation of friends, which was not as good as I had expected it to be, but made me curious to know about Ian McEwan’s other works.

McEwan wrote this book from a rather different perspective than usual and, it has to be said, proved his ability to write well by pulling it off. Saturday is a microspective view of one day of the life of Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon on his day off. The narrator keeps a running description of every thought, action and reaction Henry has during that day, beginning with his waking in the night to discover a plane on fire in the sky to, well, that would be giving it away, wouldn’t it? The potential to bore the reader to death with such a blow by blow narrative is enormous, yet there is a compelling aspect to the prose that keeps the flow going so well, that there is little temptation to put the book down.

Henry is a successful man, with a successful wife, two wonderful and successful children. The picture is very nearly too perfect, yet remains believable (another tribute to McEwan’s writing ability) because the reader is allowed to see that he is neither superficial, nor ungrateful for what he has. With full knowledge of his advantages in life, Henry is looking forward to his Saturday of relaxation and release from the stresses of work, as we all do. Although he knows there might be minor difficulties ahead with the reunion of his daughter and her grandfather at dinner, he anticipates no serious trouble, and thus begins his day.

How many times does anyone begin such a day, only to have it turn into a disaster? Every death, accident or incident is prefaced by someone getting out of bed to start his day, and thus it is so for Henry as well, only this time the reader experiences the start to the day and the shock of events as they unfold. Henry’s morning is marred when he is involved in a minor car accident in the city while he tries to avoid the anti-war demonstrations taking place in London that day. This accident and the actions of the other car’s occupants shape the rest of Henry’s day, forcing him to contemplate moral issues ranging from his duties as a physician to the validity of war in Iraq. He tries to conquer his inner turmoil while not letting it affect the rest of his day and his interactions with friends and family.

The constant attempt to contain the seepage of his irritation with himself, his reactions and his refusal to address the situation for fear of further ruining his own day drain Henry and create the opposite effect. He becomes so involved with himself and his thoughts that he fails to see the bigger picture and the potential dangers. McEwan uses both the close examination of Henry’s thoughts and his temporary, but obvious, inability to see outside of himself as platforms for his themes. Showing Henry to be a flawed man prevents the book from becoming a ethical handbook for the different moral questions McEwan introduces. Since Henry is not perfect, his judgements may be just as flawed as himself, ergo his opinions are to be questioned and not viewed as law.

I’m finding it rather difficult to describe this book. It’s all rather intricately woven together, with many questions left unanswered because they cannot necessarily be answered, yet still must be considered and debated for society to progress and not regress. In the wrong hands, both subject matter and style could have been diabolical, but McEwan makes it work and makes it work well, leaving the reader with much to think about. Although some people may find it tedious in places, I’m still going to give this one 5 out of 5 because of the skill with which the work was executed.

2 comments:

Mari said...

I tried reading this last year but didn't make it to the end. I just had a hard time getting into it. I liked Atonement much better.

Trish said...

It's been really interesting to see what people suggest for the "future/new" classics portion of the challenge. But something you said really struck me: "I’m finding it rather difficult to describe this book. It’s all rather intricately woven together, with many questions left unanswered because they cannot necessarily be answered, yet still must be considered and debated for society to progress and not regress." To me, this is what makes a book a new classic.

I haven't read this one, but I did like Atonement and look forward to discovering more McEwan.