Sunday, February 13, 2005

'Saturday' reviewed

Originally uploaded by Giskin.
Reading a book by an author as well-known as McEwan is like watching a movie with a famous star: you experience it in a double frame of reference. The awareness of the celebrity superimposes itself on the character. It's difficult not to see the protagonist HenryPerowne as an alter-ego of McEwan himself, especially as there are many autobiographical strands running through the novel. Therein perhaps lies a clue to the success of the novel: the imaginative themes (most notably neurosurgery) are masterfully enacted, and those clearly based on McEwan's own experience (his mother's decline into dementia, for example) are authentic and sensitive without resorting to melodrama.

Some reviewers have characterised the tension in the plot between a scientific world-view (characterised by Perowne) and a literary one (carried mainly by his poet daughter) as a sort of 'rivalry' in which literature wins out. Literature does indeed triumph in the plot (I won't give it away), but there is a far more subtle undercurrent here. The very way in which McEwan writes about brain surgery - the medical equivalent of rocket science - shows that writing about anatomy, neurology, surgery doesn't have to be an exercise in demystification. There is nothing didactic or condescending about the way in which McEwan wields the surgical terminology, it is unforced and lyrical. It has to be said that TV shows like ER in which an unstinting barrage of medical terminology is no bar to communicating meaning have illustrated that the forms of words are capable of shaping sense in the absence of denotative meaning. I don't know what a pilocytic astrocytoma is, but I'm grateful to McEwan for realising that he does't have to explain: it doesn't matter to my understanding of the story. The temptation to educate is one, I suspect, few trained neurosurgeon writers would be able to pass up. The ability of a literary writer to inhabit so effectively the persona of a neurosurgeon without unweaving the rainbow (to coin a phrase) shows a reconciliation between literature and science, I would argue, rather than the former necessarily trumping the latter.

This is not a book with intricate and complex subplots and sweeping psychosocial narratives. In spite of, or perhaps because of, this, it is the epitome of the novel as a genre. It has a strong narrative thread, several clearly identifiable metaphorical themes, a well-built sense of place (London is beautifully evoked), a climax and a denouement. The political dimension on the war with Iraq is perfectly tuned to articulate the ambiguity felt by so many of us on this issue. Only one aspect rang false for me. It was a passage about the futility of the punctiliousness of a streetsweeper when behind him, 'cartons and paper cups are spreading thickly under the feet of demonstrators gathered outside McDonald's on the corner'. I can testify to the fact that no self-respecting marcher would have been seen dead in McDonald's that day. McDonald's might have had two million people pass their doorway in the icy cold, but I suspect there was precious little by way of trade.

Henry Perowne is a likeable hero. It is refreshing to have external events drive a character's internal reflections when so many plots are built around the material consequences of the internal crises of characters. I enjoyed reading Saturday and not only for the content. The book is beautifully typeset on nice quality paper. All in all, a thoroughly good read.

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