Ian McEwan

Reason and unreason collide in McEwan's fine new thriller.

By Max Leonard

On the first page of Ian Mcewan's new novel the freshly conscious main character, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, muses on what has prematurely woken him from his hard-earned slumber: "He has no need to relieve himself, nor is he disturbed by a dream or some element of the day before, or even by the state of the world." Foolish man, the McEwan aficionado might think: the above sentence is testament to the fact that he will indeed be disturbed – a warning shot across the bows of equanimity by a writer who delights in disrupting the genteel, middle-class lives of his characters. It is a portent of a portent because, as Perowne moves to the window, he sees a burning plane streak slowly across the London sky like a comet. Lugubrious signifiers, both, that prey on the collective unconscious: "Everyone agrees, airliners look different in the sky these days, predatory or doomed."

Perowne is centre of his own world: secure, self-satisfied even, in his outlook, his profession and family situation. Nevertheless, he is uncharacteristically spooked by the sight, though he prides himself on his resolutely rational and scientific mind. It causes him to worry about the day to come, a day both ordinary, filled with the prosaic round of chores, sports, and family engagements, and extraordinary – it is 15 February, 2003, the date of the mass public demonstrations against the looming war on Iraq. Looming, too, is a more personal crisis that will become the main substance of the novel. He manages, however, to get back to sleep and awakens at a more reasonable hour to start the day proper.

Back on track, Perowne leaves home for his regular game of squash with a colleague; en route he is involved in a minor scrape while negotiating in his car the deserted streets of a London taken over by marchers. The incident is handled with typical McEwan skill. Immersed in the anaesthetising flow of Perowne's thoughts – the sound of nerve endings idling, the quotidian inner commentary that accompanies us all, like distant radio murmur, in our private moments – the build-up to the crash barely registers on the reader's radar and is all the more jarring for it. To extricate himself from the threatening situation that ensues, Perowne uses his professional knowledge in a way that later troubles him: he recognises that the unstable other driver has Huntington's Chorea, a degenerative brain condition which leads its sufferers inexorably down a path of mental and physical deterioration. He feels that he has somehow acted unfairly in highlighting the man's illness, but given that it allows him to escape a threatened beating, he doesn't let it weigh on his mind too heavily.

The squash match is vividly recounted, as McEwan captures the intense focus, the thrill of competition, and fluctuating mental states. The match becomes ill-tempered. somehow, it seems, Perowne's day has been derailed from its course of leisurely satisfaction and unquestioning accomplishment, and though the rest of his duties – buying supper, visiting his elderly mother – pass by without much incident, McEwan maintains an edgy undercurrent of tension to the narrative. Perowne is looking forward to the evening meal with his daughter who is returning from Paris to visit, but the happy reunion quickly turns into an ugly argument; worse is to come, but to tell any more would give away the taut conclusion which shatters the domestic bliss that hours ago had seemed so secure.

A day in the life. The elements that drive the plot forward to this conclusion are well integrated into the hustle and bustle of a busy Saturday, and do not impede the illusion of the ordinary flow of time. But it is, of course, a day seen through the filter of an individual's consciousness, and thus the range of the novel extends backwards to Perowne's reminiscences of meeting his wife-to-be for the first time, memories of his family growing up and fascinatingly detailed accounts of brain surgery; it also extends forwards to anticipate old age, whose first effects Perowne feels encroaching on his life. In this way, the book feels a lot more expansive than its limited time frame might allow. It is an inner world convincingly fleshed out.

Perowne's thoughts also frequently turn to the moral dilemma of the war, articulating the vacillations of an educated man who understands the dangers of both action and inertia. Readers expecting a justification or critique of New Labour's controversial actions will not find either. Politically this is not a strident book. It does not share the anger that the marchers feel at being tricked into a harsh action with just consequences. This cerebral detachment seems smugly balanced and over-equivocal, given McEwan's seeming willingness to engage with the recent past; but this is perhaps to criticise unfairly. The book is also an extended exercise in inhabiting a character: Perowne's pragmatic, assured cast of mind is skilfully woven into the fabric of the prose. McEwan's usual unfussy style is distilled even further in order to convey the brusque, unimaginative nature of the protagonist.

Many of the author's favourite preoccupations find their place in the book, some of which work better than others. Nowhere is McEwan better than when exploring the connections and disjunctions between the personal view and the big picture – small actions and their wider consequences, like ripples from a pebble dropped in a pond – and, conversely, the curious mechanism that denies large-scale catastrophes penetration into an individual's private universe, the tight, happy circle of family and friends. The book also returns to one of McEwan's abiding themes: put simply, the dichotomy of the rational and the irrational, or the scientific and the spiritual. The paradox of the brain, of consciousness and chemistry, is thoughtfully explored from the neurosurgeon's perspective, someone who understands the physicality of the seat of reason and yet wonders at its unfathomable depths. But it is perhaps a touch overplayed when compared to, say, Back Dogs, a novel which handled a similar theme more elegantly. The defence of literature implicit in the dénouement fails to convince, and the didactic tone which has tainted some of his later work – particularly Enduring Love – is present.

With his previous novels, Ian McEwan set himself a very high standard, and if this is not quite matched in Saturday, then that is hardly a criticism. It is certainly a more coherent whole than atonement (which let itself down in the final pages), and is a humane, reasoned account of one man living through one day. McEwan's fluid prose and and his ability to ratchet up the tension make for gripping reading from start to finish.
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