four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
16-May-June-2005
By: 
Ian McEwan
user_rating: 
0

It’s February 15, 2003, a year and a half after the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and a month before the war against Iraq began. Forty-eight-year-old neurosurgeon Henry Perowne—contented, successful, passionately devoted to his wife and children, and ensconced in his blessed life—awakens to a burning plane in London’s predawn sky. He immediately imagines the worst, the "horror of what he can’t see." Although it’s not a terrorist attack, Henry feels compelled to listen to the news and join the larger "community of anxiety." And readers will learn that there is a more immediate threat of violence in the novel.

By early morning, Henry has chatted with his talented teenage musician son and planned a welcome-home dinner party for his daughter, an accomplished poet sojourning in Paris. On his way to the squash courts, he sits in his Mercedes, trying to avoid the throngs of anti-war demonstrators clogging the streets. After a mild fender-bender, he escapes mugging by a young thug, Baxter, by identifying his symptoms of a fatal neurological disorder and wresting control of the situation. Later, Henry visits his ailing mother, shops for dinner, and returns home as his family gathers for the evening’s festivities.

Unrelated incidents, really; it’s a typical Saturday, full of ruminations on life. Yet, a growing unease strains Henry’s composure.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 289 pages. $26. ISBN: 0385511809

Critical Themes

Ulysses—the short version: McEwan has tackled the day-in-the-life, stream-of-consciousness form that produced two 20th-century masterpieces: James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In "the wrong hands," noted the Boston Globe, "such a conceit can be deadly." Yet, McEwan’s "’single’ perspective feels multitudinous" rather than claustrophobic (San Diego Union-Tribune). The anti-war demonstrations and climate of terror provide a broader canvas for Henry’s intricate thoughts.

Weighing morality: McEwan imbues Henry with moral ambiguity, from his views on Iraq to his diagnosis of Baxter’s illness. Caught between wanting to provide the greatest good for the greatest number and maintain his personal pleasures, Henry debates all sides of an issue. And yet, asks the Chicago Sun-Times, "Can good come from motivations that are in themselves troubled or downright wrong? That … lies at the core of Saturday."

Poetry saves, or mars, the day: In a remarkable novel, critics agree there’s one misstep. Hearing Victorian poet Matthew Arnold’s "Dover Beach" has a remarkable effect on one of the novel’s characters. The poem implies that love delivers salvation, a main theme of the novel. Most critics agree that this message should have emerged from the characters’ souls instead of "a deus ex machina moment" that many found "ludicrous" (San Diego Union-Tribune).

Chicago Sun-Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"This is a stunning novel, its subtle depth surprisingly affecting, its voice both warm and troubled as events cause Henry to reconsider their meanings. Saturday, in many ways, is a whole life compressed into the metaphor of a single day: birth at dawn, midlife at midday, and death at night." Randy Michael Signor

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"... dazzling … [I]n charting Henry’s emotional temperature, his perambulations from optimism to doubt to fear, Mr. McEwan provides the reader with a wonderfully acute psychological portrait of his hero ..." Michiko Kakutani

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[McEwan] wields his pen as if it were a scalpel, creating precision sentences, carving out graceful passages of transcendent prose, and, upon occasion, endowing his characters with razor-sharp intelligence. … Perowne’s politics will not please many readers either—he delivers an impassioned argument in favor of war—but then again, they aren’t meant to." Anita Shreve

Boston Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Anxiety sets the tone both for his home and his homeland. … McEwan encourages us to think small while provoking some big thoughts along the way." Sean L. McCarthy

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[A]s Perowne’s day nears its end, and the novel pauses ever so slightly before concluding, McEwan allows us to hear a few echoes of the conclusion of [James Joyce’s] The Dead—and allows us to savor the life he has conjured up in all the pages that have come before."
Alan Cheuse

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Everything is seen from Henry’s perspective—a gutsy and ambitious endeavor that could have turned the book claustrophobic. … McEwan is adept at slowly, subtly building suspense by creating an atmosphere of doom early in the story." Jean Charbonneau

Minneapolis Star-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"McEwan succeeds brilliantly at creating a complex and rounded portrait of one man and a time in history ...’" Brad Zellar

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"McEwan’s story is utterly enthralling, as complex as the surgery that Henry performs (recounted in graphic detail), and also as stunningly orderly and harmonious." Richard Wakefield

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"... Saturday is a tightly wound tour de force of several strands—a Hitchcockian thriller, an allegory of the post-9/11 world, the portrait of a very attractive family, and a meditation on the fragility of life and all that we most value. … Despite all its virtues … Saturday still feels a little too artful, just a smidgen over-contrived." Michael Dirda

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"In other novels, McEwan has proved more than able at capturing the breathing warmth of life in fiction’s cold frame. Here, though, his symmetries seem to have gotten the better of him and his art comes perilously close to stifling life altogether." Zoe Heller

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 of 5 Stars
"Saturday is a masterfully constructed piece of writing, to be sure, but much like the works of that tiny Neoclassicist Alexander Pope, it’s more a piece of machinery than a fully realized work of art." Bob Hoover

San Diego Union-Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"McEwan’s craft is most apparent in the way he provides such a rich picture of Perowne’s family in such short space, an accomplishment that deepens the suspense of the book’s last act. … More seriously, the orderliness of McEwan’s plot renders the novel schematic and, as such, disappointingly trite toward the end." Gregory Miller

USA Today 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Saturday … can only be described as dull. … [I]t has the distinct aroma of a novel McEwan researched rather than crafted from the heart." Deirdre Donahue

Critical Summary

As McEwan writers, "When anything can happen, everything matters." Saturday magnifies a pivotal moment in history and a day in a man’s life as secure foundations crack and uncertainty rushes in. While critics cited different overriding themes, Saturday explores ideas of fate and purpose, life’s fragility, revelation, and terror at all levels of society. McEwan, an enduring talent in Britain combines "literary seriousness" with a "momentum more commonly associated with genre fiction." The result is an intricate, captivating novel defined by a "serene tension" that erupts into a dark reality despite its hero’s optimism (New York Times Book Review).

McEwan brilliantly builds many layers of reality from small details. Henry—a sympathetic, if conflicted, character—knows he can examine people’s brains, but not understand their minds. His ruminations on surgery, lovemaking, music, war (he’s pro-war), and literature (he’s clueless) rise to a crescendo as he slowly questions his own motives and actions. In dazzling, authoritative prose, McEwan depicts this growing anxiety with a calmness that is soon violated.

Despite its appeal on both sides of the Atlantic, a few reviewers thought McEwan’s intricate plotting and slow, dark suspense was too structured. The novel’s explicit messages deprive the reader of "feeling, rather than coolly registering, the author’s intention" (New York Times Book Review). Yet, in the end, most critics agree that Saturday is both a substantial work of literature by one of Britain’s greatest minds and a powerful piece of post-9/11 fiction.