on 30 October 2009
It was surprising to find so many 1- and 2-star reviews here at Amazon. "Saturday" has a lot going for it. Much has been made of the technical impressiveness of McEwan's prose; his meticulous research into multiple topics; the attention to detail in the stream-of-conciousness narration of the central character, whose constantly calculating approach to life seemed entirely fitting for a brain surgeon (sorry, "neurosurgeon").
I found the meditations on the state of society and current affairs of 2003 particularly satisfying. One of the best sections was the argument between Daisy and Henry about the rationale for the Iraq war, youthful moral absolutism on the one hand and sloppy pragmatic consequentialism on the other. (My own position on this issue has oscillated between the two over the last six years.) There were some gripping moments (I won't spoil things by going into detail) and, perhaps, some clever allegorical points being made - invasive brain surgery being contrasted with invasive military action, for example. And I'm pretty sure that learning how Henry thinks has, in a small way, changed how I think, for the better.
On the other hand, it was equally surprising to find serious critics absolutely bowled over by this novel; words like "dazzling" and "stunning" seem to crop up a lot in reviews. They all seem to ignore the novel's most obvious flaw: a family of uniformly high achievers will not only be not particularly likeable, but, when the achievements are *this* impressive, almost certain not to exist. Yes, there's probably an 18-year-old kid somewhere who is currently being feted by the British Blues scene as our next greatest guitarist - but you can be sure that his sister isn't our next greatest poet, his dad one of our greatest surgeons, his mum one of our greatest media lawyers, his grandfather one of our greatest current poets and his poor grandmother "only" a "county champion" swimmer. How could McEwan go to such lengths with the details only to get the big picture so absurdly wrong? Some characters who actually act like human beings in a real family (occasionally stopping achieving things to make each other laugh, or drive each other up the wall, perhaps) would give the reader something to relate to. (One wonders if the reviewers would have been so gushing if they had been unaware of the identity of the author.)
There's lots more to be said but you probably have better things to do with your time. So in summary:
It's a brussels sprout of a book. You feel you ought to consume it, because you know it's good for you and you see everyone else doing it; and while you might not enjoy it much at the time, you'll feel slightly better for it afterwards.
Saturday is a day in the life of Henry Perowne, a Fitzrovia Square dwelling neurosurgeon. The book follows an eventful day in his life, describing & detailing every thought he has about his surroundings, family, coworkers and generally his life. When a minor traffic accident brings unwelcome elements into his life, his diurnal evaluations will count for nothing as a series of coincidences threaten his very way of life.
For the first 30 pages I was absolutely captivated by this book, a simple description of Henry waking up in the middle of the night to a state of uncanny alertness and feeling a compulsion to walk to the window, only to see a burning jet making an emergency landing into Heathrow was simply magical.
The rest of the book follows suit well, but doesn't recapture the initial hypnosis. McEwan's writing style makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck sometimes. The characters are well fleshed out as often trivial events in Henry's life trigger a spiral into introspective asides detailing his past and his feelings towards the components of his existence. As a result you get to understand the inner workings of Henry's mind, what propels, feeds and most importantly, drives him. The book is set in 2003's London, on the day of the anti-Iraq-war protests and the vivid descriptions of his meanderings around Charlotte, Gower & University Street are true to life, a great touch to an already great book if you know the area.
It is after we have gained a very comprehensive grasp of who Henry is that he is thrown into turmoil and you read with baited breath waiting to see whether he will live upto your expectations of the character. Simply electric reading, I struggled to put this book down. If you are new to Ian McEwan this is as good a place to start as any, I am hooked and would recommend this book to anyone!!
This is my third McEwan, and I'm still relatively new to him, but what Atonement (which I enjoyed), Enduring Love (which I enjoyed apart from Jed's overly verbose letters) and Saturday have in common is their stunning prose. Let's forget about plots for a second, and just indulge ourselves in sentence after sentence of pure style, grace and elegance. McEwan is supremely eloquent; surely one of the finest British writers writing now, and Saturday is a genuine pleasure to read.
McEwan, and contemporary literary fiction generally, isn't big on plot at the moment. If you're looking for that, you'll be disappointed. What McEwan does do well is in the detail, and he does it brilliantly in Saturday, opening up the brain of his neurosurgeon protagonist, and letting his thoughts pour out. When you read this novel, you aren't being told a story, you are simply imbibing the thoughts of one man, one Saturday.
Plotless, the novel isn't though. Enough happens on this Saturday, from the early morning plane on fire, to the minor car crash and the final knife-wielding consequences (which reminded me a lot of Enduring Love), to keep the reader moving. Our protagonist's own sense of unease gently piles on the pressure, with brief respites for jazz and cooking. Interesting that the climax of the nameless foreboding that hangs around this self-consciously post 9-11 novel, with the bursting of Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein and terrorism into our cultural consciousness, eventually materialises in the opportunist Baxter and his sidekick.
Those who lambaste the pages devoted to the squash game have missed the point. This whole section is a study of the competitive nature of an individual - the tension so palpable that I found my own heartbeat pounding with empathy. Our neurosurgeon's 7000 square metre house and Mercedes seem to be enough to annoy some readers, as do his successful wife and children, but there are skeletons even in this life, small sadnesses, sacrifices, hurdles ahead.
There are some fortunate plot coincidences; that Baxter happens to have early symptoms of a degenerate brain disease being one I'm not quite convinced about. There are also some moments in the operating theatre that my queasy nature didn't enjoy, but overall, this is my favourite of his works so far. It's so beautifully written and structured that it's difficult to find fault with anything.
If you can stand to spend 279 pages of time in someone else's head, thinking their thoughts and seeing the world through their eyes, then this book might be the one for you.
on 9 November 2006
Let's be clear: Ian McEwan is incapable of writing a bad English sentence. In `Saturday', as always, he gets under the skin of his characters with forensic brilliance and I can think of no other contemporary novelist who renders the texture of thought and consciousness with such nimble guile. There are ideas here that strike you with their elegant truth.
So much for form. As far as story goes, `Saturday' scores low. When McEwan writes about the solipsistic artistry of Henry's neuro-surgery or the sentimental tug his over-achieving offspring induce, his tone is frankly embarrassing. In fact, everything about the Perownes' lives is uncool, from the son's young-fogeyish talent for the blues to his daughter's straight-from-the-pages-of-the-Sunday-Times poetry career. `Saturday' further showcases the two chinks in McEwan's formidable armour: dialogue (one has to translate it to believe it) and sex (too much coy information). The final invasion of the family home is wholly improbable and where else, apart from in the pages of a middle-class fantasy, could a rabid thug be disarmed by the lyric beauty of a Matthew Arnold poem?!
I don't know how `Saturday' came into being but it feels like an amalgam of obsessions that had been knocking around the writer's head. Peace demonstrations, the moral complexities of the Iraq war, poetry, jazz and neuro-surgery read more like the
contents of a Sunday supplement than the stuff of real life. Still, we have to judge McEwan relatively - he's probably one of the top three British authors writing today. Hopefully he will set his own bar higher next time.
on 17 May 2008
Why is Ian McEwan so successful? Is it because his rich understanding of literature and science create a vital lens on our times? Or is it because the literate classes can so easily identify with his firmly middle-class viewpoint (see every main character for the last ten years). Like Atonement, the main character (Perowne, a neurologist) has that mixture of vague musing about how the less fortunate live and barely disguised fear of Baxter, a maladjusted type, this time 'with Simian features'. Honestly, how much closer can you get to dehumanising the less fortunate? Obviously this elevates Perowne to the paragon of man, flexing his mind and his muscles in a squash game while Baxter spends his time lounging in Spearmint Rhino. This is every male, middle-class professional 's fantasy version of himself, with all base urges assigned to the 'lower class' character. Like Atonement, Saturday includes scenes of hard-to-swallow heroism from Perowne and his arty children (yeah right) when by that point I was on Baxter's side, hoping he'd set fire to their Oriental rug or something. Of course, McEwan chooses to bring him close to raping the daughter instead, just to underline that he's no better than an animal. But instead he reads the daughter's poetry, gets all emotional about it and doesn't do any damage. This must be one of the most laughable moments in the history of literature, and epitomises this writer's problem. Instead of keeping one foot in the plausible, McEwan uses the dramatic climax to champion the transforming power of literature. But since its effect is attributed to Baxter's neurological and emotional condition, McEwan is just subtly and smugly stating that the 'lower classes' are otherwise morons and no better than animals. There is no awareness of Baxter's cultural alienation from poetry, or his lack of opportunity to indulge in it like the Oxbridge daughter. The reduction of Baxter in this way is compounded by the fact that he's no more than a sounding-board for the Perowne character to muse on neurological conditions. I'll admit this leads to some finely researched writing, but does 10 obscure scientific terms per page add up to literature? Or is it just pandering those middle-class readers again, who are just too busy these days to read novels (unless it can be categorised under 'mental self-improvement' activities).
When are we going to see a writer emerge who can really speak for the millions of Londoners who don't live in Highgate and Notting Hill? In the meantime, this book's only good for a laugh at the myopic ivory tower types.
on 16 March 2012
I just had to write a review for this book to see if I'm the only one who thinks it is awful. Why do I hate it, you ask. Well, let's see...it might be the main character, a squash-playing, sports car driving neurosurgeon (ugh). It could be the stereotypical, one dimensional thug he runs into. It could be getting most of the way through the novel and finding yourself thinking 'why do I care about this man?' For me it was the description of his perfect bleeding children, especially the daughter, who was 'classically French looking'...or something. I forget because I was too busy being annoyed. It was all just so flipping middle class! You might be thinking that I'm a chippy, dog-on-a-string type but no, you're wrong, see, because I am the most middle class person you will ever meet! I just genuinely hated this character.
Have you ever been at a dinner party where someone relates a story about being mugged or burgled? It's like that, only told by someone you don't care about.
on 11 April 2007
I, like other readers, was drawn to this book by the near ecstatic reviews. I had previously read Amsterdam and enjoyed it. I am also a physician who runs courses in "medical humanities" and so a book with a doc as the main character might, I had hoped, shine light on a contemporary elite. However I found the book tedious and contrived. In fact I could hardly read it! I found myself indifferent to the fate of the characters whose characterisation was meticulous but devoid of humour or irony or realism. The way it has been hailed as "dazzling", "triumph", "work of genius" etc, is baffling. Many amazon reviewers seem to be, like me, out of step with the literati who we look to to guide us to the books worth reading. What is going on here?
on 22 September 2005
What is it about Saturday that makes it something of a miss-hit? Written by one of our most talented writers and set in a 24 hour time frame with a hot contemporary political backdrop, it would appear that all the ingredients have been assembled for a thumping good read- so why does it miss-fire quite so badly? I found the distinction between the preachy Henry Perowne and the even more preachy Ian McEwan (masquerading as the third person narrator, but with name tag still firmly showing)difficult to discern. The story of a day in the life of a top neuro-surgeon with a successfull barrister wife and successfull poet daughter and an aspiring rock star son, was already preaching the maxim that money can buy you happiness and success difficult to swallow. This theme that intelligence = money = success = happiness was heightened by the protagonist Baxter who was, poor, uncouth, and poorly educated. Of all the people who were in London on that day preparing for the march (and the population was swelled by the thousands and thousands)Henry gets into a difficult confrontation in a 'deserted' car park with Baxter who just happens to have a neuro-logical condition which Henry, at the point of being thumped, diagnoses. What were the odds for that little coincidence? A first victory for intelligence. The victories mount up. When Baxter returns at the climax of the novel he is prevented from possibly killing Henry's wife when his daughter recites poetry to Baxter. He is so moved by the poem's beauty that the beast in him is tamed. If it had been 'Jabberwocky' the woman would have been sliced. To stop your self being mugged, stabbed or raped remember to leave the mace at home and take Milton or Wordsworth instead.
The narrator's strong opinions on everything from the impending Iraq war to the correct way to cook fish blur into Henry's stream-of-consciousness technique (which was done with far greater effect by Virginia Woolfe in Mrs Dalloway, another 24 hr slice of incidental life). Pages are devoted to the various lectures of life, none of which are particularly interesting or move the novel along, but serve only to highlight a level of intelligence that only about 2% of the population have, namely other brain-surgeons. The anti-climatic ending where Henry is called in to operate and therefore save the life of Baxter,with his god-like skills, just reaffirms all that has just been said.
All the clever people remain happy and devoted to one another, despite an unrealistic tiff between Daddy and daughter over the impending Iraqi war; and that they have just been held hostage; daughter forced to strip; grandfather smacked in the nose and wife held at knife point, they settle down to dinner and a bottle of wine, perfectly chilled. The barbarian uneducated hordes cannot disturb the lives of the rich and happy and poetic.
It failed to reach the short list for the Booker, which is a victory, but not for the Henry Perownes of our shared world.
on 7 November 2006
As is the case with a number of McEwan novels, the plot itself is nothing to shout about. One man goes about his routine Saturday with a few strange events thrown in. There's a bit of drama with the Baxter character, but even that doesn't seem to amount to much. if it's drama you are after this isn't the novel for you. The strength of this book lies in the little characteristics of everyday life (ok, as everyday as you can get for a neurosurgeon living in a massive house in Central London!) that are described in painstaking, observant detail.
Some of the passages in the book made me stop and have a 'thoughtful moment' as I pondered the passages to myself.
I thought he dealt with the feelings of Henry to his Mother and also his daughter well, for me this was the strength of the book. I'd recommend this to someone who enjoys a read that is well written, not especially exciting, but a glimpse into the life of a supposed intellectual family and some good moments in the book.
on 7 February 2005
Well of course the hype completely obscures the worth of this book, forming me to conclude that Ian McEwan is now a writer and not a novelist. Henry Perowne (surely an anagram) did not come alive - I just kept thinking it was day in the diary of Ian McEwan. Day off, rant about the war, make love to the wife, rant about the war, minor car crash and skirmish with a nutter (the only real bit of building fiction in the book) play squash (15 pages of it!), rant about the war, visit senile mother, rant about the war, make a fish stew etc. There was not much I enjoyed in this book - in fact, I only finished it because I was seduced (once again!) by the reviews and bought it in hardback. I think this was McEwan's deluded attempt (and very poor it was) to write a modern Ulysses. Substitute Bloom cooking his kidneys with Perowne's fish stew. Sad. The newly researched medical terminology was far to largely lathered on - just too much information necessary. As for using references to his mate' poetry, and his own past list as examples of literary excellence I am staggered with the vanity of the man. The war debate wasn't clever - it was just the normal machinations that all broad sheet readers had - and still have - with a their consciousness over whether to invade Iraq. Far too much politicising for a supposed novel. It was also fortunate that Henry, who is not a reader, had read all the appropriate intellectual theories of the war. When Baxter turned up at Henry's home to wreak menace I got really hopeful that there was actually going to be a story, but (as a previous reviewer also noted) how utterly pathetic to expect us to believe that the nutter was deterred from rape by the power of poetry! Oh puhleese.. . . A collapse of credibility. Also unlikely is that Daisy Perowne would be a published poet at so young an age (the odds must be one in a million) but no doubt a famous grandad did her no harm. By part five I was too bored and irritated to do more than scan the rest. I couldn't have cared less what happened to either Baxter or Henry.
Ian McEwan is the darling of the literati, and this will no doubt cushion him from the opinions of mere readers like me who fork out for this tosh. He'll also be in contention for the Booker again so he won't have a single sleepless night. Oh, and do Mercedes S500 cars come with gears? Mine doesn't.