Monday, March 27, 2006

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)

If On Beauty represents everything I despise in modern literature, Saturday embodies almost everything I enjoy in it. I reserve the right to re-read this in a few years and decide whether it should have been a 4.

We follow Henry Perowne, London neurosurgeon and father of two, on Saturday, February 15, 2003. He witnesses a potential terror attack, gets assaulted, plays squash, visits his senile mother, makes fish stew, and has a family reunion. Saturday is a book of exquisite detail and effortless digression, encapsulating a great deal in a single day. Frequently prosaic, occasionally philosophical, and by turns caring and tense, the stories flows well and compellingly through the day.

Saturday has a bit of everything scattered about the day. There is something for everyone. Henry does not see the value of stories that depict someone's life in detail, nor does he share my fondness for (some) magical realism, but we do see the transformative power of song and poetry. We contrast the powers of the brain and the mind, as Henry repairs the former during the week but cannot help his aging mother keep the latter during his visit. We have war and peace, conflict and concord, aggression and humility.

There is, of course, a bit of cheating. By having everything, we commit to little, which is how we smuggle in transformative literature alongside stolid materialism. Maybe that is just me, feeling like Henry's perspective was cheated at time since the author is an author, a lover of literature. We also slip outside the day in various digressions, perhaps taking that three-page excursion through Henry's readings or a fifteen-page account of family history.

The digressions work. They flow perfectly smoothly and naturally. One detail sends the mind of in some direction, the next one picks up, and we work our way back around to what is in front of us. The language of the book flows like a conversation, or perhaps a bit of stream of consciousness. No matter how far afield of the story we end up, the trip was perfectly natural, just in order, quite right.

The book contains perhaps the most engrossing account of cooking fish stew to be found in literature. Also, I like the way he cooks. I like a lot of things about Henry, which is good. Too much modern literature decides that the way to give a character depth is to make him horribly horribly flawed. It is not enough to have faults: he must be a horrible person, who we will then make into a sympathetic character (or perhaps the reverse order). If nothing is contemptible or disgusting, the book is not done. Saturday is not like that.

The climax is built well. The pacing is wonderful, hitting just the right notes. Block out enough time to read part four at one sitting, if you can. It stands without comment.

I have scarcely touched on the plot or the characters, but that is just as well. The beauty of the book is in the details, the exploration as fine as Henry's brain surgery. So I will leave you to that exploration, whatever day you take it.

PTN book club discussion of Saturday
Amazon link

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