Friday, March 19, 2010

Ian McEwan saves the day

The earlier part of this week, I couldn't engage with anything I read. Glancing at my wall of unread books, I spied Ian McEwan's Saturday and decided to give it a try. I started it some years back but thought it seemed a bit slight compared to the mighty Atonement. I am glad I tried it again. The events are less cataclysmic, much more pedestrian (the book takes place in a day,) but McEwan brings an abundance of psychological and social insight to the story.

The story follows a neurosurgeon named Henry on a Saturday shortly before the start of the Iraq war. His day is focused on preparing for a important family dinner, where his daughter, living in Paris will return to the family and, Henry hopes, will reconcile with her maternal grandfather, a man Henry dislikes. Henry's blues musician son and lawyer wife will also be there. Like most modern folk, he wants to cram more into his day that just the party so he tries to get in a squash game. His reckless pursuit of the game in a city clogged with war protesters leads to a confrontation with many consequences.

McEwan does a wonderful job in creating Henry who balances career and family better than most, but is beset by many minor devils, like his petulant treatment of his opponent in the squash match. His reactions to a violent encounter are unexpected and the conclusion speaks particularly well of him. McEwan's heroes are always reflective, with rich inner lives, but I think he does an excellent job with Henry. He weaves in incidents from the past that quite naturally inform his behavior and thought.

On the social level, McEwan rebukes the selfish mindset of the "not in my name" protester class, but also the paranoid, vengeful GWOT worldview. It is the latter that concerns him the most and Henry's minor transformation of the day is to reject the negative view and to take a positive view of the world. This book is an accomplishment, quite different from Atonement, but great nonetheless.

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