Tuesday, November 26, 2013

McEwan captures the abundant joy, beauty and drama of a single day

Saturday, a novel by Ian McEwan
Published in Canada by Alfred A. Knopf Canada (2005)

Saturday tells the story of a day in the life of Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon who lives and works in London, England. In the opening scene, Henry is standing at his bedroom window at night when he observes an airliner off in the distance, apparently on fire as it flashes across the sky and disappears from view.

The dramatic action in the skies above London foreshadows the drama about to unfold in Henry's life. On this particular Saturday, Henry is looking forward to a day off work: playing squash, shopping for seafood, and a planned family reunion. But an uncharacteristic lapse in judgement while driving his Mercedes-Benz will have unsettling consequences for Henry and his family; and suddenly a carefully calibrated life is tipped off balance.

Henry - a happily married father of two grown children - is a man who is normally in control. Up to this point in his life, there has been a clean, orderliness to his existence. He has been a master of his own fate (in his career and his personal life) through dedication, perseverance, hard work and luck. As McEwan explains, Henry is "too experienced to be touched by the varieties of distress he encounters - his obligation is to be useful."

In McEwan's hands, the plot progresses quick enough to keep readers engaged, but it almost pales in comparison to the surgical precision of his prose. McEwan packs an extraordinary range of detail into his scenes and takes readers on an extensive journey inside the mind and world of Henry Perowne over a 24-hour period, describing his thoughts, fears, biases, aspirations and beliefs. Indeed, McEwan dissects Henry's waking moments as would a surgeon operating on a patient, with unflappable confidence, dexterity and skill.

McEwan suggests that the true miracle of life resides in brief snippets of everyday experience, not in grand events or political movements (the backdrop of Saturday is the lead up to Britain's involvement in the invasion of Iraq). The moments that define us are brief, accidental and fleeting - and suffused with beauty and meaning.

The pacing of Saturday is slow and deliberate; with each new plot development, McEwan steps back and dissects various undercurrents of thought and actions before proceeding to the next turn of events. For me, that's what makes McEwan's writing so brilliant and memorable: this ability to stop the action in mid-stream and examine its parts from different vantage points using language that sings and alights on the page, without losing the narrative thread. At one point, McEwan spends several pages describing a game of squash between Henry and his colleague, and by the end of it, the reader is caught up in the competitive drama between the two men and Henry's fierce desire to win.

In another scene,  Henry is listening to his son performing at a music rehearsal, and recognizing how music has the capacity to touch the soul: 
"There are 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."
It is these kinds of meticulous descriptions that characterize McEwan's writing. He creates a vivid fictional world that is realistic on the outside and fantastically complex on the inside. Saturday is a novel that exemplifies why Ian McEwan is considered one of the finest - if not the finest - living novelist working in the English language. 

For those you have never read a McEwan novel, Saturday is a perfect place to jump in.

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