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Book Review - Saturday by Ian McEwan

A Day in the Life

Saturday
by
Ian McEwan

Published by Nan A. Talese

Review by W. R. Greer


Henry Perowne knows he lives a fortunate life. He's a highly skilled and respected neurosurgeon, and his wife, Rosalind, is a successful attorney for a newspaper. His two children are now adults, seemingly well adjusted, and both are embarking on what should be successful careers. He's still deeply in love with his wife, and cherishes the moments he can share with her. They live in a 7000 square foot house in London, and their upper middle class life is comfortable and prosperous.

Saturday takes place in one day, February 15, 2003. It's the day of a huge anti-war rally in London, and this period between the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and the launching of the Iraq war is an unsettled one. Since the UK is an ally of the United States in the impending war, Perowne knows that London is probably high on any list of potential terrorist targets. He awakens in the middle of the night on this Saturday for an unknown reason, and almost automatically goes to the window of his bedroom to look outside. He sees a plane on fire on its approach to Heathrow Airport, and his mind leaps to possibilities from an onboard accident to a terrorist attack. He thinks about the passengers on the plane and their fight for survival, and how their lives may be changed or ended abruptly by this event.

Perowne wanders downstairs to turn on the radio for the news, and finds his 18-year old son in the kitchen. Theo is a promising blues musician who usually keeps late hours and sleeps until the afternoon. Perowne then goes upstairs to snuggle up next to Rosalind and when she wakes, they make love. She goes off to work and Henry prepares for a squash match against the anesthesiologist who works with him. On the way to the match, he's involved in a minor car accident with a thug named Baxter. Perowne manages to escape the fray without any real harm because he's able to spot the Huntington's chorea that will eventually be fatal for Baxter. It's this random event that will haunt Perowne, eventually threatening all that he holds dear in his life.

After the squash match, Perowne stops to buy some fish, visits his dementia-suffering mother in a nursing home, stops to watch Theo's band perform, and goes home to prepare dinner and await the arrival from France of his poet daughter, Daisy, and his father-in-law, the famous poet John Grammaticus. It's his one day off from work, and on this day, Perowne manages to have interactions with all the members of his family. A novel about one day in the life of an ordinary man could be tedious in lesser hands, but for the most part, Ian McEwan manages to fill Perowne's day with his thoughtful ruminations and observances of the minute details of modern life and human behavior that makes the day pass relatively quickly. Not only does Ian McEwan's prose effortlessly merge Perowne's thoughts about his life and the events of his day, but his characterization of Henry Perowne is the engine that keeps driving Saturday forward. At first, Perowne isn't an entirely likeable character. The main focus of his life appears to be his neurosurgery work. Rosalind and he have to compare their busy schedules to find time they might be able to spend together. His obsession with winning the squash match surpasses any fun the competition might offer. This attitude spills over into his practice:

Henry can't resist the urgency of his cases, or deny the egotistical joy in his own skills, or the pleasure he still takes in the relief of the relatives when he comes down from the operating room like a god, an angel with glad tidings -- life, not death.
The more of the day we spend with Perowne, the more he grows from an everyman to a man committed to doing the best at whatever he does, and doing the right thing as opposed to doing the expedient thing. He can't make up his mind about whether the impending war is a wise move or not. He was initially opposed to it, but when one of his patients was an Iraqi who suffered through the brutal torture of Saddam Hussein's regime, he thinks the removal of Saddam from power might be a good thing. His mood shifts throughout the day, moving from joyous to irritable to ponderous to hopeful. Even his interactions with Baxter during the accident bother him later during the day, because he worries that he took advantage of Baxter's medical condition to his own favor, even though it saved him from a physical assault. Baxter is the antithesis to Perowne, yet Baxter is the character that gives Saturday its psychological heft.

Ian McEwan, through Perowne, examines the randomness that makes up a life, and the random events that can undo one. Perowne tries to track the story of the fate of the fiery airplane throughout the day. Since he saw the plane on its approach, it's as if he has a personal stake in its outcome, and the news stories during the day come with conflicting information and conspiracy theories. It's this fear of terror that has overtaken the western world since 9/11, that thousands of happy lives, if not more, could be snuffed out in moments during this war with Islamists that could last for generations. Perowne realizes this compulsion with the news contributes to the anxiety:

It's a condition of the times, this compulsion to hear how it stands with the world, and be joined to the generality, to a community of anxiety. The habit's grown stronger these past two years; a different scale of news value has been set by monstrous and spectacular scenes. The possibility of their recurrence is one thread that binds the days. The government's counsel -- that an attack in a European or American city is an inevitability -- isn't only a disclaimer of responsibility, it's a heady promise. Everyone fears it, but there's also a darker longing in the collective mind, a sickening for self-punishment and a blasphemous curiosity. Just as the hospitals have their crisis plans, so the television networks stand ready to deliver, and their audiences wait. Bigger, grosser next time. Please don't let it happen. But let me see it all the same, as it's happening and from every angle, and let me be among the first to know.
Yet this 21st-century fear of the big tragedy, this random factor that can't be controlled, overlooks the random factors that effect lives on a more personal scale. Perowne's mother suffers from a dementia that has robbed her of the ability to recognize any friends or family and has left her with only distant memories of an earlier life. His patients are those unfortunate souls who look to him to save them from an illness or an accident they couldn't avoid. Perowne believes in science and his skills as their best hope to salvage some semblance of a life as opposed to some God who allows continuous tragedy, from a personal to a global scale, to afflict the world.
Even as a child, and especially after Aberfan, he never believed in fate or providence, or the future being made by someone in the sky. Instead, at every instant, a trillion trillion possible futures; the pickiness of pure chance and physical laws seemed like freedom from the scheming of a gloomy god.
Perowne, however, cannot save Baxter from his chorea. One faulty gene inherited from his father has set the stage for Baxter's life. Whereas Perowne's life has been fortunate, Baxter's has been anything but. Baxter has suffered from the randomness that will eventually undo him, but before then, he will be the random force that will threaten to undo the lives of others. While Perowne frets about the larger tragedies of life that might affect his family, it's those smaller tragedies of life that will hit close to home. It's those trillion trillion possible futures, that will make this Saturday, and every day after that, full of random events that form a human life. Schrodinger's cat may be alive or dead in a box, and the world marches on regardless. As Perowne's day unfolds, he'll find that randomness can't be controlled, but only reacted to.

Saturday is a novel that affirms the humanity and the inhumanity of the world. By spending the day with Henry Perowne, we come away a little wiser and humble about our world. We can't avoid the worry about what the future may hold, but like Henry Perowne, we can appreciate those parts of our lives that can make each day special. Ian McEwan's novel is a splendid examination of what makes up a life, and an examination of the new century where the future seems uncertain for any life. A day spent with Saturday is a day well spent.

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