BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Ian McEwan
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Ian McEwan has a knack for slowing down time. His books tend to be at once short and dense, and often don’t span great lengths of time (at least on the page). I don’t think many would disagree that McEwan is one of the more skilled wordsmiths working today. His writing is fluid and crams a lot into finite spaces, without (for the most part) becoming tedious or harried. Saturday clocks in at under 300 pages, and occurs over the duration of 24 hours. But McEwan fits a lot of good ideas and excellent writing into this small space. In this way it is perhaps the most typically-McEwan McEwan book I’ve read.
His writing really is a pleasure to read. Following neurologist Henry Perowne through a single day off from the operating theater, the narration covers great expanses while remaining controlled and unwandering. The book takes place in London but there’s a lot of the Iraq war in it, which got a bit tiresome to read (this says a lot about me as an American today, I guess–genocide and war, such an inconvenience to my reading, I’m sick of hearing about it…) but it ties nicely into some of the danger-at-your-doorstep themes that develop (literally) later in the novel. The war stuff is interesting as it offers a British point of view at the beginning of the Iraq war, and wouldn’t have felt stale 3 or 4 years ago.
The plotting is neat, if obvious. I won’t spoil things, but basically a fender bender goes bad, and eventually threatens the life Henry and his family have come to know and sincerely love. The play between the good lives lived by the Perownes and their views of the world are interesting. He is a neurosurgeon, his wife a pro bono lawyer; parents of a musician and a poet they can afford to provide for their family an easier turn of things than many they work on behalf of presumedly can. When Henry and his daughter argue about the war, she is typically young and idealist, he is conflicted, he knows Saddam should be destroyed, but he knows only a fool is for war unless a last resort. Yet when the minor accident endangers them in a way that a foreign war cannot, McEwan subtly brings up some interesting questions about the Western mentality and way of life that constitute the core of the book.
Like he did in Atonement, but to a lesser extent, he muses a bit too long on the power of language and art. In fact, the most powerful weapon used in the book is a poem in a knife fight, which casts a blatant pen is mightier than the sword lesson on the main drama. Some people admire this kind of stuff, but I find it pretty pretentious (ultimately, I thought it was Atonement‘s undoing, clever or not). All in all it’s a very good book, and anyone into this sort of literary fiction will almost certainly enjoy it.