Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Saturday by Ian McEwan


Rating: (Highly Recommended)




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Ian McEwan’s new novel, Saturday, presents a day in the life of a London neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne. In a systematic, orderly and disciplined way, especially through interior monologues, readers are brought into Henry’s complicated world, and become engaged by how he has to respond to the unexpected. As fine artists like McEwan reflect on the world after 9/11, some outstanding works of art emerge. Saturday is a fine novel, effective at multiple levels, from plot to character development to dialogue and emotional tautness. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter Two, pp. 53-57:


There is grandeur in this view of life. He wakes, or he thinks he does, to the sound of her hairdryer and a murmuring voice repeating a phrase, and later, after he’s sunk again, he hears the solid clunk of her wardrobe door opening, the vast built-in wardrobe, one of a pair, with automatic lights and intricate interior of lacquered veneer and deep, scented recesses; later still, as she crosses and re-crosses the bedroom in her bare feet, the silky whisper of her petticoat, surely the black one with the raised tulip pattern he bought in Milan; then the business-like tap of her boot heels on the bathroom’s marble floor as she goes about her final preparations in front of the mirror, apply­ing perfume, brushing out her hair; and all the while, the plastic radio in the form of a leaping blue dolphin, attached by suckers to the mo­saic wall in the shower, plays that same phrase, until he begins to sense a religious content as its significance swells—there is grandeur in this view of1ife, it says, over and again.

There is grandeur in this view of life. When he wakes properly two hours later she’s gone and the room is silent. There’s a narrow column of light where a shutter stands ajar. The day looks fiercely white. He pushes the covers aside and lies on his back in her part of the bed, naked in the warmth of the central heating, waiting to place the phrase. Darwin of course, from last night’s read in the bath, in the final paragraph of his great work Perowne has never actually read. Kindly, driven, infirm Charles in all his humility, bringing on the earthworms and planetary cycles to assist him with a farewell bow. To soften the message, he also summoned up the Creator, but his heart wasn’t in it and he ditched Him in later editions. Those five hundred pages deserved only one conclusion: endless and beautiful forms of life, such as you see in a common hedgerow, including ex­alted beings like ourselves, arose from physical laws, from war of na­ture, famine and death. This is the grandeur. And a bracing kind of consolation in the brief privilege of consciousness.

Once, on a walk by a river—Eskdale in low reddish sunlight, with a dusting of snow—his daughter quoted to him an opening verse by her favourite poet. Apparently, not many young women loved Philip Larkin the way she did. “If I were called in / To construct a religion/I should make use of water.” She said she liked that laconic “called in”—as if he would be, as if anyone ever is. They stopped to drink coffee from a flask, and Perowne, tracing a line of lichen with a finger, said that if he ever got the call, he’d make use of evolution. What better creation myth? An unimaginable sweep of time, num­berless generations spawning by infinitesimal steps complex living beauty out of inert matter, driven on by the blind furies of random mutation, natural selection and environmental change, with the tragedy of forms continually dying, and lately the wonder of minds emerging and with them morality, love, art, cities—and the unprece­dented bonus of this story happening to be demonstrably true.

At the end of this not entirely facetious recitation—they were standing on a stone bridge at the junction of two streams—Daisy laughed and put down her cup to applaud. “Now that’s genuine old-time religion, when you say it happens to be demonstrably true.”

He’s missed her these past months and soon she’ll be here. Amazingly for a Saturday, Theo has promised to stick around this evening, at least until eleven. Perowne’s plan is to cook a fish stew. A visit to the fishmonger’s is one of the simpler tasks ahead: monkfish, clams, mussels, unpeeled prawns. It’s this practical daylight list, these salty items, that make him leave the bed at last and walk into the bathroom. There’s a view that it’s shameful for a man to sit to uri­nate because that’s what women do. Relax! He sits, feeling the last scraps of sleep dissolve as his stream plays against the bowl. He’s trying to locate a quite different source of shame, or guilt, or of something far milder, like the memory of some embarrassment or foolishness. It passed through his thoughts only minutes ago, and now what remains is the feeling without its rationale. A sense of hav­ing behaved or spoken laughably. Of having been a fool. Without the memory of it, he can’t talk himself out of it. But who cares? These diaphanous films of sleep are still slowing him down—he imagines them resembling the arachnoid, that gossamer covering of the brain through which he routinely cuts. The grandeur. He must have hallucinated the phrase out of the hairdryer’s drone, and confused it with the radio news. The luxury of being half asleep exploring the fringes of psychosis in safety. But when he trod the air to the window last night he was fully awake. He’s even more certain of that now.

He rises and flushes his waste. At least one molecule of it will fall on him one day as rain, according to a ridiculous article in a mag­azine lying around in the operating suite coffee room. The numbers say so, but statistical probabilities aren’t the same as truths. We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when. Humming this wartime tune, he crosses the wide green-and-white marble floor to his basin to shave. He feels incomplete without this morning rite, even on a day off. He ought to learn from Theo how to let go. But Henry likes the wooden bowl, the badger brush, the extravagantly disposable triple-bladed razor, with cleverly arched and ridged jungle-green handle—drawing this industrial gem over familiar flesh sharpens his thoughts. He should look out what William James wrote on forget­ting a word or name; a tantalising, empty shape remains, almost but not quite defining the idea it once contained. Even as you struggle against the numbness of poor recall, you know precisely what the forgotten thing is not. James had the knack of fixing on the surpris­ing commonplace—and in Perowne’s humble view, wrote a better-honed prose than the fussy brother who would rather run round a thing a dozen different ways than call it by its name. Daisy, the ar­biter of his literary education, would never agree. She wrote a long undergraduate essay on Henry James’s late novels and can quote a passage from The Golden Bowl. She also knows dozens of poems by heart which she learned in her early teens, a means of earning pocket money from her grandfather. Her training was so different from her father’s. No wonder they like their disputes. What Daisy knows! At her prompting, he tried the one about the little girl suffering from her parents’ vile divorce. A promising subject, but poor Maisie soon van­ished behind a cloud of words, and at page forty-eight Perowne, who can be on his feet seven hours for a difficult procedure, who has his name down for the London Marathon, fell away, exhausted. Even the tale of his daughter’s namesake baffled him. What’s an adult to con­clude or feel about Daisy Miller’s predictable decline? That the world can be unkind? It’s not enough. He stoops to the tap to rinse his face. Perhaps he’s becoming, in this one respect at least, like Dar­win in later years who found Shakespeare dull to the point of nausea. Perowne is counting on Daisy to refine his sensibilities.


McEwan’s prose in Saturday satisfies demanding readers, and his plot requires attention. Readers who enjoy being stimulated to think will enjoy spending a day with Saturday.


Steve Hopkins, May 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2005 issue of Executive Times


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