Saturday, January 8, 2011


by Ian McEwan
New York, Anchor Books, 2005
289 pages    Fiction

Seven years after 9/11, I was taking my 10-year-old grandson, Maxwell, into Washington for the day. We had been visiting friends in Annapolis, and this was our day in the city—a part of his 10-year-old adventure, something we have shared with all our grandchildren. He was extremely agitated as we waited for the train, and his anxiety was beginning to cut into the pleasures of the day. I asked him what was worrying him so much. He replied, “I’m afraid we’re going to die.” When I expressed incredulity, he responded, “Well, a train like this would be a perfect target for terrorists.” And the shock of 9/11 washed over me again.

A similar shock stuns the protagonist of Saturday, Henry Perowne, as he views through his window a burning plane begin its descent into Heathrow airport in the early morning hours of Saturday, Feb. 25, 2003. Of course, it must be a terrorist attack, he thinks. We follow Perowne through this Saturday, his day off. We know what happens to him and what he is thinking from the moment of the burning plane until he goes to sleep much later. This is the day of the largest war protest in British history, and that event as well as the burning plane, are the background to the activities and the tragedies of the day.

The War Protest in London (from Life Magazine)

Henry Perowne is a person that I would know. He is a successful neurosurgeon, happy with his career, his marriage and his children. His thoughts, like those of most intellectuals, are filled with the nuances of life, a grand mixture of family concerns, professional concerns, political concerns, mystical ramblings, and theological pronouncements (although he would not call them so.)We are privy to these thoughts as this consequential day evolves. Ostensibly, it is going to be a day that includes intimacy with his wife, who he loves dearly, a squash game with his friend and fellow doctor, a visit to his mother in her nursing home, a quick drop-in at the rehearsal for his son’s band, and the creation of a fish stew for the return of his daughter and his father-in-law. All-in-all an ordinary Saturday. The day off is interrupted by some ominous events that cloud his thinking and disrupt the order of his day. Although the events are disturbing and shattering, they are not enough to destroy this man or this family, grounded as they are in goodness and decency.

We continue to be impressed by how Henry Perowne responds to the events of the day. We are constantly aware of the tension that exists between “the public and the personal," as one reviewer noted. He goes about the business of living, even though highly confusing and terrifying things are happening to him and around him. The world around him is in chaos. The Times reviewer notes this: “In lieu of any larger social cohesion, McEwan suggests such private joys, carved out from the clamorous world, are what must sustain us. They are our fleeting glimpses of utopia; the ancient ideals of caritas and community lived in microcosm.”

It is a tense novel because we spend the most of the book wading through Perowne’s thoughts, waiting for the other shoe (the denouement) to fall. I was touched by so many of the ordinary events of the day—the visit to the mother in the nursing home, and the announcement that the daughter was pregnant—these are both things for which I had an immediate response. I understood on a visceral level his ambivalence to the buildup to the war, and the horror of watching the burning airplane. And I could empathize with his desire to help the man who put his family at risk. He is the very decent man at the beginning of the book, and a very decent man at the end of the book.

Ian McEwen is one of Britain’s most revered authors. Saturday is the first of his books that I have read. He says it is one of his most autobiographical. It was sent to me by a friend as a way to expose me to one of her favorite authors. There are many more literate reviews of this book, along with reviews for his other acclaimed books including Atonement, and Amsterdam. I would refer you to the New York Times review, which featured him in their book review magazine of March, 2005.

All I can add is that after you begin to read really good literature, you become impatient with the garbage that masquerades as literature. It has its place, of course, but there is something to be said for a book that makes you ponder your very existence as you sit quietly in the firelight after the final sentence is read.

Here is an interesting interview with McEwan about Saturday:

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