I have just finished “Saturday” by Ian McEwan. I think I’m still in some kind of post-book shock. Which is not to imply either way that there was a surprise ending… just that I feel both elated and horribly sad. It’s not even that I’m unhappy to leave the characters, necessarily — though the protagonist, a neurosurgeon named Henry Perowne, and his family did become extremely familiar — but more that I’m sad to leave their world, McEwan’s invented world around them. This was an outstanding, outstanding book. It all takes place within a single day — a February Saturday in 2003 — and follows a single man, Perowne, from pre-dawn on through a day that’s both ordinary and extraordinary. I first heard of this book in an article about “the new literature” rising out of September 11, and so I expected it to be, well, focused on that. And it was, but it also wasn’t. It created a perfect snapshot of time in the post-9/11 world, with Perowne’s thoughts sometimes touching on that experience and similar, later terror threats, and in some direct dialogue about the (at that time) upcoming war in Iraq. And through it all, there’s not so much an argument being made one way or the other, but there’s an observation of the rightness and wrongness of all arguments. McEwan created Henry Perowne as the essentially good character, the man with a good home and good children and a truly good life, and gave him the thought and process, the reservation, that makes it all seem possible and passable and sympathetic. And yet there’s something reserved about McEwan’s Henry Perowne, something deeply satisfying in his immediate fall-back to science and medicine, to an instinct to diagnose and search for a cure, that keeps him from being so good or so sappy that he’s not believable.
And yes, there’s a metaphor, or metaphors, stretching out over this page, this Saturday of events: Saturday as middle age, Saturday as the end of creation or perhaps the rest before destruction/creation, Saturday as that perfect time of leisure that exists only on the backs of five full working days, and on and on. This can read as just a story and be absolutely a solid, good book, but it’s the extra layers — it’s those extra moments of thoughts, of Henry’s vacillation between viewpoints and memories and reasons — that give the book the depth that’s left me so staggered. I want a class on this book, a small discussion with pointed questions, something to help me organize my thoughts, because I’m in every direction about it so far — though every direction is leading to this: this is a brilliant, masterful book. If I could will into existence a book capturing the changes in my own world after 2001, this book would come very close to being exactly what I’d hope for.