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July 16, 2008 / Amy Bradney-George

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I approached this particular work with a cautious respect – having only read one other McEwan book I had some idea of what to expect, but the fact that this book is set entirely within the confines of one man’s Saturday suggested this was something different. I can’t recall reading a book set during one day before, so I knew it would be an interesting journey with McEwan as navigator.

I was pleasantly surprised by the pace of the narrative, the facts of Henry Perowne’s Saturday slipped into his thoughts and combined to create something which was both entertaining and philosophical to read. More than what happens to Perowne throughout the day, I found myself interested in his outlook on the world and, later, life itself. His thoughts provoked my own on how much the world has changed in recent times.

It’s easy to accept the social environment we live in today, where terrorism is a word striking fear into the heart of the Western world, racism is a subtle but still terrible cause of suspicion. Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, the Bali bombings of 2002, the invasion of Iraq and the strife in the area of the world known as the Middle East, how could we remember not being cautious of those around us? But McEwan shows how far these events have permeated life, and how the speed of technological advancements has affected the way we communicate and how we see ourselves.

There seemed to be an emptiness to Perowne, although his day (and life) were filled with things, he himself was not. Perhaps it was because he was analysing everything, the reason he got up so early on Saturday, why it was his car that had a run-in with Baxter, how to beat Strauss at squash and even his family. As his daughter, Daisy, says, he “won’t stand by” what he believes, and the ensuing argument suggests that is because Perowne doesn’t know what to believe – he’s too concerned with assessing the facts to make a commitment.

Has it come to the stage in (Western) society where it’s easier to be analytical of world events than choose a side? Have we become so affected by the permeation of the media into all aspects of our lives that we now try to remain objective until there is an obvious outcome? Perowne’s argument with his daughter made me wonder, because if someone as educated as Perowne can be a fence-sitter, then all bets are off.

World events aside, Perowne’s approach to the rest of his life seemed just as analytical (and not simply because it was his thoughts we read about). His emotions seemed to take second place to his thoughts. Perhaps it was a way of removing himself from the situations, because he seemed more emotional during his squash game than he was during the touching visit to his Alzheimer’s affected mother. In addition to this emotional stupor, Perowne’s awareness seemed to stop with his own thoughts. His empathy was very little when dealing with Baxter, and it was only when he was called into surgery later that I felt he redeemed himself somewhat.

For all my seeming to attack Perowne, I can sympathise with his approach to situations and thoughts. There are times when I have found myself taking no “side” in a passionate argument, and analysing a confrontation instead of trying to put myself in the other person’s shoes. If we are to believe that we are a product of our society, how people become so removed while remaining involved in life?

I think passion has something to do with it. Perowne was, in a way, passionate about his work as a neurosurgeon, but also saddened (jealous?) of Theo’s music, his creativity. Although he was involved in the arts through his children, it almost seemed as if he didn’t understand art’s significance. Indeed, at one stage he thinks:

“This notion of Daisy’s, that people can’t ‘live’ without stories, is simply not true.”

He then turns on the television to wait for “his story” about a crashed plane. Perowne may not think of a news bulletin as a story, but in today’s society news is a part of almost everything, and the bulletins (commonly called “stories”) are a form of entertainment. Why would commercial stations be so concerned with what stories to run otherwise? Why would having the right presenter (engaging, authoritative, reassuring) be as important as it is? It may not be a view commonly expressed, but the fact that the weekly TV ratings in Australia have at least two news and one current affairs program in the top 20 suggests to me that news is entertainment.

In some way, it seems, Perowne finds this factual, “real” story of his more legitimate than the stories Daisy may have meant. True, there is urgency to news because it is current, immediate, but the literature that Daisy talks of is relevant to the human condition. Like history, without stories we can’t move forward. They are a way of looking at ourselves and others, and how different social conditions will affect individuals. Stories are engaging and, more often than not, entertaining. I couldn’t help but smile at the irony of Perwone’s thoughts on them.

Despite my criticism of Perowne, he is a character I could sympathise with. The choices he makes change not only his actions and approach to things, but also those of the people around him. While I think it would be hard to come up with a definitive summary of Saturday (I’ve heard countless, all true in their own way), to me it is a book about one man’s day, and how the world current social configuration has shaped it. McEwan’s writing is smooth, startling and ironic, and he pulls off the continuous narrative style with a skill hard to surpass.

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