Daily Archives: March 8, 2016

‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan


2005, 308 p.

This is a re-read for my bookgroup, but I read it in 2007 and quite frankly could not really remember much about the book. What I did remember, however – and what strikes me anew on re-reading it- is how well it captures the post-9/11 anxiety about international news, and the interior conversations we tend to have about our own personal security in the face of international insecurity.

In the opening pages, successful neurosugeon Henry Perowne wakes early on Saturday 15 February 2003 to see a plane engulfed in flames streaking across the London skyline. Surely this news will saturate the media and yet, as he goes about his affairs on a normal Saturday – playing squash with a friend; buying fish for a family dinner that night- what he expected to be another 9/11 dwindles into insignificance as news. Securely ensconced in his upper-middle class, educated existence, he is thrust into a different form of terrorism when and where he least expects it.

The book has parallels with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, or James Joyce’s Ulysses. All three books are contained within a 24 hour period, describing the interior thoughts that bubble underneath an ordinary day.

Saturday is written in the present tense, which is a tense that I generally dislike because it makes me feel unsettled and anxious.  But in this case, that is exactly the feeling that McEwan wants to convey, and it works well.  Master writer that he is, he handles shifts in time well. Much of the book is steeped in banality, but as a reader you are fearful, expecting disaster with the turn of each page.

It is this fear of imminent disaster, both personally and globally, that captures living in a internet-connected, news-saturated post 9/11 world. I identify with this. Part of my awakened interest in world events has been driven in equal part by a desire to understand but also a fear that momentous. terrifying, world-changing things are happening right now somewhere in the world, and that I don’t yet know it.  Henry Perowne feels it too:

 He takes a step towards the CD player, then changes his mind for he’s feeling the pull, like gravity of the approaching TV news.  It’s a condition of the times, this compulsion to hear how it stands with the world, and be joined to the generality, to a community of anxiety.  The habit’s grown stronger these past two years; a different scale of news value has been set by monstrous and spectacular scenes.  The possibility of their recurrence is one thread that binds the day…  Everyone fears it, but there’s also a darker longing in the collective mind, a sickening for self-punishment and a blasphemous curiosity… Bigger, grosser, next time. Please don’t let it happen. But let me see it all the same, as it’s happening and from every angle, and let me be among the first to know. (p 176)

I share his response:

It’s an illusion, to believe himself active in the story. Does he think he’s contributing something, watching news programmes, or lying on his back on the sofa on Sunday afternoons, reading more opinion columns of ungrounded certainties, more long articles about what really lies behind this or that development, or about what is most surely going to happen next, predictions forgotten as soon as they are read, well before events disprove them?…His nerves, like tautened strings, vibrate obediently with each news ‘release’. He’s lost the habits of scepticism, he’s becoming dim with contradictory opinion, he isn’t thinking clearly, and just as bad he senses he isn’t thinking independently. (p.180)

I very much like Ian McEwan as a writer and this book is no exception. It’s a pleasure to read such smooth, masterful prose.

My rating: 9/10

Source: CAE bookgroup.