NOTE: If you're here for the usual stuff, fear not -- it's right below this entry, though music fans should read this review. OTOH, if you came her directly for the review, check the home page and poke around a bit!
Ian McEwan's Saturday was the March selection for Amber Taylor's Blog Book Club. Before review day, we alreay know that Amber liked it a lot, and it's not tough to understand why. The book's protagonist, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, has a number of qualities she (and I) would like. He's intelligent and rational. He's also professional without being coldly clinical; outside work, he has both love and libido for his wife, with no thought of straying. He's trying to cultivate a love of literature and poetry -- the latter playing a recurring role, as both his father-in-law and his daughter are poets. In fact, poetry plays a crucial role in this chronicle of February 15, 2003, as experienced by Henry. Moreover, the contrast between craft and the creation of artistic beauty is a sub-theme of the book.
Ironically, I suspect that Henry might not like Saturday. After his daughter Daisy gets him to read Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, he does not believe they amounted to much: "The details were apt and convincing enough, but surely not so very difficult to marshal if you were halfway observant and had the patience to write them all down. These books were the products of steady, workmanlike accumulation." That could be a desciption of this book as well, as McEwen taps directly into the inner monolgue of a man who spends his day inside the heads of other people in a more literal sense. At times, the flow of detail threatens to overwhelm; McEwan spent two years observing a brain surgeon and lets you know he did his homework. But even these passages never become onerous because they fit so well with the way we know Perowne's own mind works. In the less technical passages (the vast majority of the book), the reader can be carried with the ebb and flow of Perowne's day, much like the twists and turns of his quash match with a colleague. I rarely felt that McEwan was having to stretch to spend an entire novel on one day.
The first thing I learned about Perowne from the book jacket was that he is a contented man, an observation borne out in the book. Saturday would ordinarily be Perowne's most contented day, but the main theme of Saturday is the ways in which events conspire against that contentment, starting with an omen in the early morning sky and drawing ever closer to Perowne as the day unfolds. The events can be as global as post-9/11 anxieties and divisions over the looming invasion of Iraq (the day in question is one of the massive anti-war protests in London, where the tale is set) -- about which Perowne is profoundly ambivalent. Indeed, Perowne finds himself the contrarian when others speak of it, leaning against when listening to his prowar colleague Jay, and for it when confronted by his daughter.
Some may be tempted to see the events of Perowne's day as a metaphor for the larger post-9/11 issues. Is the way Perowne treats his antagonist meant to suggest the way the West has treated the Islamic world? Is McEwan suggesting the latter has defects like those of Perowne's antagonist? Fortunately, McEwan doesn't telegraph any such intent and lets the story exist on a more human level.
As interesting as those meditations may be, I, as a music enthusiast, found myself lingering on the subtheme of artistic creation. Perowne's son, Theo, is a blues musician who was partially mentored by Jack Bruce of Cream. Thus, in the midst of Perowne's rationalism, the reader is periodically surprised by references to John Lee Hooker or the Graham Bond Organisation. And my favorite passage in the book may be when Perowne's rationalism is suspended as Theo's band rehearses a new song:
"He lets it engulf him. There are those rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than theyve ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself. Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever -- mirages for which people are prepared to die or kill. Christ's kingdom on earth, the worker's paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it's tantalizingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes."
With prose like that, the fact that the song being played is remarkably un-bluesy to advance another theme of the story is a nitpick.
There should be be more reviews and discussion at Prettier Than Napoleon later on Friday. Next month's selection is Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, should you like to follow along.