Sunday, November 04, 2007

book review: Saturday

One of the advantages you get from reading classics is that with the author six feet under you come to it with a reputation established and acres of analysis already completed. With someone still living there is a chance for the reader to make up his or her own mind. Maybe that is a prospect that is in itself slightly disturbing because there is a strong chance a book will disappoint and you won’t have the numerous views of others to lean on when making your own judgement.

Ian McEwan’s Saturday is slightly different because not only have critics deemed it a modern classic but also sales figures show that readers seem to agree.

One of the challenges is to work with a book that is so clearly set on one day at one moment – Saturday, 15 February 2003. There are a lot of specifics that create not just an impression but an exact picture of a neurosurgeon moving around a world of hard work but certain wealth in London. This is pre-Iraq war because the momentum towards the conflict is building despite the resistance of the public and the UN. But the Twin Towers had occurred so this is a book about one a very clear level terror and the challenge of living in its shadow.

But there are also other things going on here that make it not just a simplistic reaction taking someone comfortable and to a degree insulated and viewing the new uncertain world through their eyes. There is the question of what is worse – real terror or the imagined kind. Then there are some issues about class with Baxter being clearly from a different world compared to Henry the surgeon and his family. Family is important here with it being everything that matters to Henry and in the end something he is prepared to almost die for. But family is also a route for genetic flaws to pass down through the generations. Baxter with his Huntington’s disease is the most graphic example of that but Henry is also losing control of his own children as they grow and take the characteristics their parents gave them and move beyond them to become successful in their own right. Henry accepts that his fate will be to follow in the footsteps of his senile mother who he visits on Saturday afternoon.

What keeps a book that could have not only easily dated but got bogged down in politics going is the central character Henry Perowne. He is likeable, quite willing to please and generates the tension with the final involvement with Baxter who he could so easily have punished for breaking into his home at knife point and humiliating his daughter and threatening his wife. Maybe the fact that poetry saved their lives and sparked off something in Baxter spurred on Henry's decision to forgive rather than revenge.

Along with Henry the structure of the book also works with it covering the action of one particularly long Saturday. Although the reader knows that this is one day, a snapshot, into a life and a family. The war of course went ahead and the war on terror rumbles on and the bombs did come to London as predicted in the closing pages. But it is because it is one day and it has to have en ending that makes it so accessible. It is possible to grasp that there is a shadow over everyone’s lives, part of the reason for Henry waking and looking to the skies, which makes you feel surrounded by potential danger.

It doesn’t matter if you are a neurosurgeon, thug like Baxter or a poet the key to Saturday is that it shows a mirror to the fears and reactions to a new landscape. This book, more probably than most of the political histories of the Blair and Bush years that have been written and will come, manages to convey the sense of what it has been and continues to be like for those living in the shadow of the unknown.

Version read – Vintage paperback

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