By Judy Cox
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What a Difference a Day Makes

This article is over 16 years, 10 months old
Ian McEwan's new novel doesn't live up to the hype.
Issue 294

Saturday has been widely marketed as a novel about 15 February 2003 – the day when 2 million took to the streets of London in the greatest anti-war protest in history. But anyone who buys this book expecting it to engage directly with that movement will be disappointed.

The demonstration features as a background event, an irritant, the unwitting cause of tension and confrontation. The novel is a response to 11 September 2001, but it is an oblique response. It explores the way in which terrorism, fear and violence can impact on the smuggest of middle class lives. And Saturday‘s hero, Henry Perowne, is very, very smug.

He is a top neurosurgeon. He loves his job and very rarely fails to bestow on his grateful patients the gift of life. And everyone apparently loves a neurosurgeon, especially female patients. Henry’s wife was a patient. And streetwise Amanda is tamed by her instant love for Josh, his medical partner.

Luckily for Henry, he is still wildly in love with his wife of 25 years, who is herself a beautiful and successful libel lawyer. And Henry’s two children are just wonderful too. Daisy is a lovely young intellectual and poet. Her first collection is just being published. And Theo is a gorgeous young musician who is just about to break into the blues scene big time. Even Henry’s house, on a central London square, is wonderful.

The only thing that worries Henry is whether he is getting too old to run the London Marathon and beat Josh, who is also his squash opponent. And his only obvious weakness is that he does not understand literature and poetry. It is Henry’s cranky, but very picturesque, father-in-law, who just happens to be a world famous poet living in a French chateau, who helps Daisy and Theo to find their artistic path in life. This weakness of Henry’s is exposed by McEwan, who demonstrates the power of poetry to move and transform lives.

At first Saturday seems to be on the brink of showing us how fragile Henry’s comfortable world is. Surely this too perfect world is being created so we can see how it breaks. McEwan holds out the possibility of challenging middle class complacency and showing the violence bred in the heart of our society, whether it be terrorism or domestic crime. In the early hours of the morning Henry sees a plane on fire and fears another 11 September style attack. The fear is mirrored on a more directly personal level later in the day when thugs confront Henry after a traffic incident and threaten to shatter his world.

But they don’t shatter it. The invaders are repulsed by the Perownes’ collective intelligence, determination and courage. The crisis doesn’t provoke any revelation or self-revelation on Henry’s part. It merely confirms how wonderful this family really is. I can’t give the end of the novel away, but Henry even gets to show how magnanimous he is to those poor inferior creatures who have wronged him.

The great strength of the book is McEwan’s innovative structure. By setting all the action within a 24-hour period, everyday events are invested with deep and unexpected meaning. Sex, the squash match, shopping for dinner, a visit to his mother – all provide insights into Henry’s and our lives. And it is a great read. But it falls short of expectations, and its failure is a political as well as an artistic one.

McEwan is detached from the anti-war movement. He said that his characters’ varied discussions on the war – some for, some against, some confused – create dramatic tension. But the dramatic tension should have come from the characters’ inner lives and actions. They don’t change, grow, or learn anything from their ordeal.

Ultimately the novel reaffirms the resilience of English middle class life. The opposite conclusion, which McEwan has demonstrated in other novels, would have been both more interesting and more accurate.

Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape £17.99

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