I had a fascinating relationship with Mrs. Dalloway. It grew on me over the space of two months, culminating in one of the best papers I’ve ever written. But at first, something was lacking. You can read all about that in my review here, I suppose. It was really something about the shifting perspectives – Septimus… ugh.
Saturday made me feel the same way I felt with Woolf’s novel except it was more. There was something more. I had a little trouble getting into it, at first – the streaming consciousness was more modern and written differently but still something of a struggle to break into. However, once you did get into it, you were swept up by the current like it was a swelling river. Henry Perowne is our main character, a successful neurosurgeon – well-off, lovely wife, two children, but also feeling a little discontented with the world-at-large.
The novel takes place on February 15, 2003 – the day of the massive anti-war protests in London. I don’t remember the day but I remember the feelings around that time. I remember the lead-up to the Iraq war. How ridiculous it all seemed but how, under other circumstances, it wasn’t a bad idea to remove Saddam. How awful the neo-cons were. How scary it was, especially to someone just debuting into the world like I was. Anyway.
McEwan has a deft touch at moving individuals through their ordinary lives and then, at the snap of a finger, altering those ordinary lives irrevocably. Atonement, his masterpiece, springs to mind – but I actually found Saturday to be more immediately affecting. Perowne has a minor dust-up with his car that nearly turns into a serious mugging – but he manages to divert the main assailant’s attention to a medical condition Perowne notices. I’ll admit, this was a slightly Holmesian level of deduction/observation, but McEwan had done a good job at establishing Perowne’s propensity for observation, for thought, and so forth. We were already well-accustomed to his mind and so I didn’t see it as a huge leap – although if the moment had come earlier or been presented differently, it might’ve been far less acceptable a leap.
The novel continues along its rather ordinary “describing a day” path – although Perowne is noticeably shaken about by the incident. There is a beautiful passage where Henry listens to his son’s band play a new song and feels that transcendance that comes from really truly great music… there’s a sad (but rather unnecessary, in retrospect) sequence where he visits his aging mother – it was unnecessary in that it did nothing for the plot OR the character… but I suppose, in that sense that it was an ordinary Saturday, it makes sense. Like with Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, you need to experience the truly completely mundane moments in order to really grasp the bigger ones.
The return of Baxter (the assailant) – and no, this isn’t a spoiler, the back of the book gives it away – is wrenching and the whole course of events is rather gripping reading. The way a slightly tense but mostly wonderful evening suddenly turns into a traumatic near-nightmare – but McEwan never shifts his tone, he never makes it over-the-top. It all feels natural – we feel how Henry feels because we’ve spent “this Saturday” with him and it all flows so wonderfully naturally.
The coincidences at the end of the novel are really the only detraction I can think of. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say things wrap up a little too easily for the Perowne family and then the closure is just one coincidence too many. Certainly these things happen and indeed might even happen like this – and extraordinary moments are, to be sure, the basis for many a great novel. I just felt that Perowne getting called back to the hospital was a little too much. I’d’ve rather seen the rest of the night play out with the children, his wife, and his father-in-law. That’d’ve been more interesting, to me.
I’m too young to truly understand how Perowne feels, both personally and professionally. But I see a lot of my father in him and my parents are dealing with both my sister and I moving forward in our lives, approaching the end of the time where they can do anything real for us. Henry’s unease at the state of the world and the way things were moving… my dad felt the same way in 2003. Now, in 2010, that’s blossomed into a serious sense of discomfort – and I think Henry would probably feel the same way. But at the same time, there are transcendant moments: stealing time with your wife, enjoying something that you love to do, relishing your children’s successes and triumphs. The family (mom/kids) in this book were apparently based on McEwan’s own – quite closely, in fact. If that’s true, then he understands it too – no matter how dark this world gets, there are lights right there in your own home to fight back the darkness and the nervousness the world-at-large is inspiring.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. A wonderful trip through London in the vein of Mrs. Dalloway but also something much more current. Something much more immediate. Something more enjoyable (and I did, indeed, enjoy Woolf’s novel). The only thing to knock this out of the 5+ category (and yes, it would’ve been there – the writing is so perfectly crafted and the atmosphere of a rainy Sunday was just the perfect one to read the lion’s share of this book) was really some of the events of the last 30 or so pages. I just couldn’t quite get on-board with it and, as a result, I was taken out of it – just a little, though. Henry Perowne was such a real (and yet so literary) character that I couldn’t help but stick with him.