Wednesday, August 19, 2009

194. Saturday – Ian McEwan

March 2009
History: Written in 2005.
Plot: Perowne has been very lucky in life: he is competent and respected in a worthwhile job he loves; he has a long and happy marriage to a successful lawyer; his children are extremely pleasant and talented, his son (18) is a blues musician and his older daughter, Daisy, a poet living in Paris; his wife inherited their large home in Fitzrovia, central London; he is fit and active, interested and interesting. However, Perowne is aware of how lucky he is. He knows from his work and his mother's dementia how easily the brain can be damaged and life turned upside down. His own father died suddenly when he was a baby. He sees people lose the chance to experience the pleasures he has through genetics, a poor environment or a flaw in the character. He is aware how other people can disrupt a life, from the possibility of personal violence from an unlooked-for encounter with the mad or bad to poor personal choices by family members. He fears violence from terrorists and understands how many blameless individual lives are blighted by dictators or political actions.
Perowne understands that there are no simple moral decisions to be made in life and fears those who think that there are. Even apparently straightforward moral decisions can have unfortunate consequences. He has mixed feelings about the Iraq Demonstration (a historical event) that forms a backdrop to the day. He has treated an Iraqi professor and understands the evil practised by Saddam Hussein's regime, but fears the simplistic, ideological motivations of those promoting the invasion, and the long-term damage that war would bring.
The novel's title is also a metaphor for the stage of life at which Perowne finds himself, a cumulation of pleasure and work before the quiet Sunday of retirement.
Perowne's day starts early, at 3.40 a.m., as for some strange reason he is unable to sleep although he has just had a very busy week. From the window of his bedroom, he sees a Russian aeroplane with one of its engines on fire, which later lands safely at Heathrow airport. This event casts a shadow over the whole day as the reasons given for this incident heard by Perowne on the television change and shift: is it an accident or connected with terrorism? Are the pilots Islamist terrorists or unfortunate people who did their job well? Later, after having had sex with Rosalind, his wife, he falls back into a half sleep, vaguely hearing her prepare and leave for an important meeting at her work.
He puts on scruffy sports clothes and leaves the house to drive to a nearby squash court. When he leaves, he needs to take an alternative route because of road blocks that have been put up because of the post 9/11 protests (showing how innocent people are affected by something over which they have no control). On his way he has a minor car accident that transforms his day. The other car contains three young men whose leader is called Baxter. At first they try to extort money from him but then threaten to beat him up. However, from Baxter's behaviour, Perowne is able to diagnose the onset of Huntington's disease, and he uses that knowledge to delay the beating, taking advantage of the fact that Baxter does not want his companions to know about his illness. Perowne succeeds in further delaying Baxter by describing new treatments for his disease. Baxter's hesitations cause his companions to abandon him, allowing Perowne to escape and leaving Baxter humiliated.
Perowne feels himself becoming older and feebler, and that he may have to give up sports, running marathons as well as squash, by the age of 50. Despite such thoughts, Perowne takes his game of squash against his anaesthetist very seriously, and just loses in an unsatisfactory manner.
He goes on to buy seafood from a local fishmonger, and then in the afternoon visits his mother. She is living in a retirement home and suffers from vascular dementia. She no longer recognises him or anyone else, and no longer has a short term memory. Perowne contrasts her with her younger days as a champion swimmer and reflects on the degree to which his mother is no longer there.
The evening is to be devoted to family. He enjoys listening to a rehearsal by his son's band and then returns home to cook for a family reunion that evening. Daisy's maternal grandfather is a well-established but disappointed poet, and there has been tension between them owing to her early success. The grandfather, John Grammaticus, a heavy drinker who lives in a château in the South of France, is also due to arrive for dinner, and Perowne hopes for some reconciliation.
Rosalind is the last to arrive home, but as she enters Baxter and one of his mates force their way in and, armed with knives, threaten the family. Baxter hits Grammaticus and Perowne realises Baxter has come for revenge after the morning's humiliation. Baxter orders Daisy to take off all her clothes in order to make it easier for him to rape her. When she does, Perowne notices that she is pregnant. Finding out she is a poet, Baxter makes her recite a poem. Rather than one of her own, she recites Dover Beach, which has the effect of disarming Baxter. Instead he becomes enthusiastic about Perowne's renewed lies about new treatment for Huntington's disease. His companion abandons him, and Baxter is overpowered and knocked unconscious falling down the stairs.
Some time later Perowne is summoned to the hospital for an emergency operation on Baxter. This Perowne conducts successfully and professionally. He reflects that though this is the 'right' course to take, its effect will be to expose Baxter to the future agonies of his disease. Perowne's Saturday ends at around 5:15 a.m., after he has returned from the hospital and made love to his wife again.
Review: I didn’t feel the novel was consistently realistic, in fact it was a bit hokey. The way him and his wife talk to each other is unrealistic, and his kids are perfect, his life is perfect and I have difficulty connecting with that. It too closely mirrors “Mrs. Dalloway”, preparing for a party, ageing, and the reverberations of war. I was engrossed in it mostly at first. But it didn’t have the irony that most of his novels have. The villain even, especially at the end, seemed inaccurate. The parents weren’t even upset that Daisy was pregnant, just too perfect. However, I did feel my pulse race as McEwan built tension and suspense into the narrative, and the descriptions within the operating room were extremely detailed and interesting.
Opening Line: “Some hours before Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes to find himself already in motion, pushing back the covers from a sitting position, and then rising to his feet.”
Closing Line: “And at last, faintly, falling: this day’s over.”
Quotes: “There are these rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they’ve ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself.”
“When there are no consequences, being wrong is simply an interesting diversion.”
Rating: Okay.

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