I stayed up late last night to finish Ian McEwan’s amazing new book Saturday. I think this is the first, true, post-911 novel, a book that is infused with the Western world’s new fears of terrorist annihilation.
The book centers on Henry Perowne, a 48-year old successful London neurosurgeon who lives a perfect life. He is still madly in love with his wife, Rosalind, inordinately proud of his 18-year old son, Theo, an accomplished blues musician and his 20-ish daughter, Daisy, whose first book of poetry is about to be published.
The action in the book takes place in one 24-hour period – a Saturday. Perowne wakes up unexpectedly around 3 a.m. filled with an inexplicable euphoria. He goes to the window and looks out onto the square fronting his house. While he observes the people who inhabit the park in the wee hours of the morning, he spots a plane crossing the horizon and soon realizes the plane is on fire. Is this just a mechanical problem? Or is this an airplane-turned- missile that will destroy part of London, just as the two jets destroyed the twin towers in 2001?
Within a short time, Perowne realizes there will not be a catastrophe, but he can’t shake his feelings of foreboding. We follow him throughout the rest of the day as he makes love to his wife, gets ready to play squash with one of his medical partners, and watches as hundreds of thousands of people gather to demonstrate against the United States’ threat to invade Iraq. McEwan is a master at this, at detailing the minutia of life, the objects that repel us and give us pleasure.
The novel asks the question of how we balance our responsibilities to our own lives and the world at large. Perowne has mixed feelings about invading Iraq – he once treated an Iraqi exile who had been tortured by Sadaam Hussein’s government. Perowne is a neurosurgeon who saves lives daily. Surely on a Saturday he is entitled to a day of rest, a respite from the world? Part of him just wants to be free to play squash and shop for fish for the stew he plans to make or a family dinner. But he can’t stop thinking about how the world has changed, how the threat of terrorism now pervades his consciousness.
A minor car accident brings Perowne into contact with Baxter, a clearly unstable low-level gangster. As Baxter’s minions start to attack, Perowne diagnoses him with Huntington’s disease, and taunts the man in front of his friends. Perowne leaves the scene of the accident slightly bruised and beaten, but at that point in the day his world is essentially intact.
I don’t want to reveal later developments, but McEwan soon shows that there are still more immediate threats to our lives than the danger from radical Muslims intent on exploding car bombs in London and other cities. He is not dismissing the problem, but shows how those fears have overtaken the way many westerners now regard the world.
Of course, McEwan has had personal experiences that have imbued his perception of the world. In April 2004, on his way to deliver a lecture in Seattle, he was detained in Vancouver for 36 hours because the United States would not permit him entry – even though he had had lunch the previous fall with Laura Bush and had won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Atonement.
Saturday will not be released in the United States until late March. How, then, did I get to read an Advanced Reader’s Copy? Well, an owner of my favorite bookstore – and now I will name it – A Great Good Place for Books in the Montclair District of Oakland – read my blog and took pity on me. I had described how bereft I felt at not being allowed access to ARCs, and she said she would lend them to me on one condition --- that I write reviews for her store newsletter. I didn’t have to think twice. Thanks, Debi.