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A- : artfully wrought character study -- but not more
See our review for fuller assessment.
|Christian Science Monitor
||Sébastien Le Fol
|Independent on Sunday
|Neue Zürcher Zeitung
|The New Criterion
|The New Republic
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|Rev. of Contemp. Fiction
||Steven G. Kellman
|San Francisco Chronicle
|Scotland on Sunday
|The Village Voice
|The Washington Post
Impressed -- though the American critics decidedly less enamored
From the Reviews:
- "McEwan's novel ends with the hard-won virtues of forgiveness, familial love, and decency. It's not the grace found at the end of Atonement, but there's something moving in the fact that Henry always can be counted on to do the decent thing." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor
- "The highly textured but low-pitched prose, with its accretion of detail and its insistent use of the present tense, allows the submerged uncertainty of life after 9/11 to emerge not as an occasion for rhetorical or stylistic fireworks but as one of the many tonal strains, albeit an intense one, pervading a man’s daily experience." - Sam Munson, Commentary
- "This is a rich book, sensuous and thoughtful. Occasionally, McEwan stacks his intellectual cards too neatly (.....) In general, however, McEwan has found in Saturday the right form to showcase his dazzling talents." - Caroline Moore, Daily Telegraph
- "Saturday is not a McEwan masterpiece: it is just a little too safe. But it is still hugely enjoyable for all that." - The Economist
- "(H)is least frightening book yet. The violent confrontation late in the narrative may be the silliest, most overwrought climax McEwan has ever cooked up. Rather than the manifestation of a dark, unknowable force -- or even just an angry, complicated man with a will of his own -- Baxter turns out to be the hapless puppet of a grotesque neurological condition that Perowne manages to diagnose at a glance." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly
- "None of this is in itself remarkable, but McEwan’s examination of the minute workings of conscience and personality is thrillingly shrewd. (...) In other hands this could become maddeningly flashy, a torrent of clever aperçus and topical graffiti. But McEwan’s style has long been skewed towards understatement; even when he’s itemising the details of a craniotomy. In Saturday he is at his best -- thoughtful, eloquent, yet restrained. The novel has all the technical assurance of its predecessors, and suggests as well a newly political sensibility and a seductive, Joycean attention to the textures of normality." - Henry Hitchings, Financial Times
- "By recording with such loving care the elements of one rich Englishman's life, Saturday explores the question of to what extent it is possible to insulate yourself against the world's concerns. (...) One of the most oblique but also most serious contributions to the post-9/11, post-Iraq war literature, it succeeds in ridiculing on every page the view of its hero that fiction is useless to the modern world." - Mark Lawson, The Guardian
- "Ecce homo: in this middle-aged, middle-class, well-to-do white man, McEwan distils all that is good, decent and honourable about English society today." - Elena Seymenliyska, The Guardian
- "Among the novel's panoply of virtues is its acute and sensitive ear for the noise in the background of ordered urban life. (...) Its author's scrupulous application of his talent merits real gratitude from its readers. Saturday is distinguished by an intense literary imagination that is fundamentally scientific in its vision and its criteria." - Marek Kohn, The Independent
- "Refreshing and engrossing, Saturday has a pleasing intimacy, dense with revelation, and is not at all encumbered by dogmatic argument. (...) McEwan's superb novel amply demonstrates how good fiction, by dramatising unwieldy and fraught ideas in a deeply personal narrative, can fashion the world into gobbets sometimes more digestible than factual reportage." - James Urquhart, Independent on Sunday
- "Saturday is a commentary on how politics gets invented from the stuff of emotion the way mind is created out of the brain. Read (and written) in the light of events following the Iraq invasion, this carefully ambiguous tale about the "brightly wrought illusion" of unstable selves amounts to a cool, temperate, humane protest against belligerent certainty. (...) This extraordinary book is not a political novel. It is a novel about consciousness that illuminates the sources of politics." - Lee Siegel, The Nation
- "Doch dem Leviathan der Politik hat McEwan in Saturday auf diese Weise zu viel an literarischen Werten geopfert. Ein politischer Kommentar zur Zeit seit dem 11. September und auch den Bombenattentaten von London ist das Buch sehr wohl, doch als Roman ist es missglückt." - Uwe Pralle, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "McEwan ties a lead weight to his own carefully accumulated details with this invocation of the magical powers of poetry. For his accumulation has been splendid." - Max Watman, The New Criterion
- "But one will forgive much when prose is as good as this" - James Wood, The New Republic
- "In the foreground, there is personal violence; in the background, the implied violence of the war in Iraq. And yet -- unusually for McEwan -- Saturday is about feeling good rather than feeling bad. The novel addresses the idea that pleasure and happiness don't make good fictional subjects. (...) It would have taken the tiniest nod to the possibility of pretension to redeem Perowne into charm. For all his flaws, he is interesting, and the story, as ever with McEwan, is twisting and clever. But only when the surgeon visits his mother do we glimpse a novel that is likeable as well as smart." - Sophie Harrison, New Statesman
- "McEwan is skeptical, sometimes brutally so, of this society: It has made us unfeeling, and unsure. But it has been his method, and even his genius, to accept its premises. In crafting grim, carefully structured novels in which characters receive their comeuppance -- but, at least in his recent work, never too, too much of it -- he has become the consummate professional novelist." - Keith Gessen, New York
- "Saturday is a dismayingly bad book. (...) Another source of dismay, one for which, admittedly, Ian McEwan cannot wholly be held accountable, is the ecstatic reception Saturday has received from reviewers and book buyers alike. Are we in the West so shaken in our sense of ourselves and our culture, are we so disablingly terrified in the face of the various fanaticisms which threaten us, that we can allow ourselves to be persuaded and comforted by such a self-satisfied and, in many ways, ridiculous novel as this ?" - John Banville, The New York Review of Books
- "Saturday reads like an up-to-the-moment, post-9/11 variation on Woolf's classic 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. (...) Mr. McEwan has not only produced one of the most powerful pieces of post-9/11 fiction yet published, but also fulfilled that very primal mission of the novel: to show how we -- a privileged few of us, anyway -- live today." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "In Saturday, as in all McEwan's work, there is much to admire in the efficiency and clarity with which he marshals his themes. Here, though, his control over his material is too pronounced." - Zoe Heller, The New York Times Book Review
- "(A) novel you can't help admiring and can't possibly love." - David Gates, Newsweek
- "His gift of observation, wonderfully precise, now comes thick and fast. There is next to nothing in this novel that feels forced; the author's mature attention illuminates equally everything it falls on. (...) One strand of the book's many arguments explores this debate between rationality and imagination. For all the author's occasionally irritating in-jokes, it is not clear which side comes out on top." - Tim Adams, The Observer
- "Saturday appears indebted to Mrs. Dalloway for its premise. Yet McEwan has claimed Saul Bellow as Muse, and this book is more akin to Seize the Day as well as those Bellovian fictions in which nasty urban realities intrude on an urbane man’s privileged existence." - Steven G. Kellman, Review of Contemporary Fiction
- "(A) magnificently imagined and surprisingly flawed work." - David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle
- "In Atonement, McEwan chose young characters whose life-changing experiences slowly resonated through wider events. In Saturday he has turned it all around: a middle-aged hero resistant to change is set against the fate of millions. Perowne cannot hope to win. The writing is as sharp and vivid as ever; it is the raw material that is flawed." - Andrew Crumey, Scotland on Sunday
- "Offsetting local and global menace, McEwan invites us to make other parallels -- not least between the surgical dissections of the neurologist and the layer by layer revelations of the novelist, so absorbed in probing his character’s hard-wired psyche and knotted skein of emotional threads." - Tom Adair, The Scotsman
- "McEwan is writing close to the news and to the facts: fiction has to take its place within a context of reality. Both are given equal weight, but there can be no doubt that this hyper-real novel is absolutely convincing on its own terms. The reader is able to coexist with the writer, in an identical time frame and with the same preoccupations. (...) Saturday is an exemplary novel, engrossing and sustained. It is undoubtedly McEwan’s best." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator
- "McEwan's fiction has typically dwelt on worst-case scenarios (.....) In this novel, though, threats are never quite implemented. Perhaps this is a sign of artistic maturity, a response to the political situation, or both." - Lewis Jones, Sunday Telegraph
- "Saturday has its inert elements (...). But, written with superb exactness, complex, suspenseful, reflective and humane, this novel about an expert on the human brain by an expert on the human mind reinforces his status as the supreme novelist of his generation." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
- "(A) book of great moral maturity, beautifully alive to the fragility of happiness and all forms of violence -- chemical, biological, social and political -- threatening it. Everyone should read Saturday (.....) Artistically, morally and politically, he excels." - Ruth Scurr, The Times
- "It is all very impressive: McEwan gives lie to the view that novels can no longer encapsulate the present, and shows that being topical does not mean being merely gossipy. (...) Saturday is much less boring than it sounds. It is executed with his customary skill, intelligence and seriousness: the structure is minutely planned; the individual scenes have a cinematic, brightly lit clarity; the prose is clean, sharp and watchful. And, inevitably, there is a constant undercurrent of menace to keep readers on their toes." - Theo Tait, Times Literary Supplement
- "His new novel, Saturday, can only be described as dull. (...) (C)ompared with Atonement, Amsterdam and Enduring Love, among others, Saturday is a chore to read, bogged down by McEwan's political musings and obvious medical research." - Deidre Donahue, USA Today
- "This is not a modest book, and it buckles under its immense ambitions. (...) The novel is most provocative as a philosophical inquiry into happiness -- though even in this capacity, it tends toward a defeated conservatism." - Dennis Lim, The Village Voice
- "At times its implied meanings may seem too explicit. This is a political novel finally, and one that appears to beat its drum a little hard at times. (...) Despite all its virtues, and these include some astonishing pages of description (...) Saturday still feels a little too artful, just a smidgen over-contrived. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of observing the dramatic unities of place, time and action: The intersection of the public and private takes on a disturbing neatness." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
- "Das Problem mit glücklichen Menschen in der schöngeistigen Literatur ist nicht, daß sie so selten vorkommen, sondern daß sie, wenn sie vorkommen, ihren Kollegen aus den Kitschromanen so schrecklich ähnlich sehen. Nicht nur die Dialoge sind ärgerlich. Die ganze Konstruktion erweist sich spätestens beim zweiten Lesen als allzu durchsichtig, durch das Gebäude des Romans pfeift ein eiseskalter Wind. Es ist alles zu genau abgezirkelt. Und genau deswegen kippt auch die Konstruktion immer wieder in die Kolportage." - Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt
- "Es gibt ein ganzes Bündel von Gründen, Saturday zu loben: die sorgfältige Architektur, die Intelligenz der Beobachtungen, die elegant unauffällige Sprache (von Bernhard Robben glänzend übersetzt) und die geradezu aristotelische Einheit von Ort, Zeit und Handlung. Und doch bleibt ein Unbehagen. Es gleicht dem eines Varieté-Besuchers, der den verblüffenden Kunststücken eines Zauberkünstlers atemlos gefolgt ist, am Ende aber die Vorstellung mit leerem Kopf verlässt." - Ulrich Greiner, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Saturday is a closely circumscribed novel, a detailed day in the life.
The life is London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne's, the weekend day -- away from work -- not quite typical or everyday.
The Saturday is 15 February, 2003, the day on which hundreds of thousands would march in the capital in protest against the proposed war against Iraq, the teeming masses a constant backdrop (though always kept at some distance, whether on television or on the streets).
Perowne's day is one largely of simple routine and leisurely errands, scheduled to culminate in the evening with a family get-together at dinner.
Prowne's daughter, Daisy, is about to have her first book of poetry published, and is coming home for the first time in six months -- the longest she's ever been away.
Son Theo, who abandoned school and has found fulfilment as a blues musician, still lives at home; like Daisy he gets along very well with his father.
Perowne is happily married too, to Rosalind, a lawyer for a newspaper (constantly trying "to steer her newspaper away from the courts") -- who has the annoyance of an injunction to fight this Saturday.
The final guest expected for dinner is Rosalind's father, John Grammaticus, himself a well-known poet, living in France -- the one possibly disruptive presence, a strong personality who hasn't quite mended a rift with Daisy.
Perowne isn't much of a reader, but Daisy has been trying to educate him, making up reading lists for him.
He still doesn't quite get it, but for the most part he's willing to try.
But some of the books she suggests -- the "irksome confections" of the magical realist school -- are too much for him to take:
the actual, not the magical should be the challenge.
This reading list persuaded Perowne that the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible.
He pleads with his daughter: "No more magic midget drummers".
Ian McEwan is, of course, not known for his magic midget drummers or similar flights of fancy; it's not magical but clinical realism he offers, and in Saturday, built entirely around neurosurgeon Perowne, McEwan can indulge himself to his heart's (and mind's --though one is tempted to say: cerebrum's --) content.
Indulge he does, carefully constructing his novel around what happens to Perowne on that Saturday.
From the leftover workweek (it lingers into the weekend) to the usual Saturday routine (a squash game, a visit to his mother (who has, perhaps too predictably, almost entirely lost her mind)) as well as the demands of this particular day (shopping, cooking, going to hear Theo and his band rehearse), McEwan slowly and carefully describes what Perowne does and thinks, and what happens to and around him.
Necessary background -- how he met Rosalind, his relationship with his father-in-law and with his children, some work-detail -- is woven in, not quite effortlessly, but easily enough.
Bit by bit the character-portrait is built up.
But even McEwan isn't satisfied simply with the everyday (and setting it on a day with such a significant backdrop -- the march, and the world-events behind it -- would make it hard to completely keep the world at bay in any case).
From the beginning, there is also a sense of menace in the novel.
In the earliest morning hours Perowne wakes and, looking out the window, sees what he first believes to be a comet but then recognises as an airplane that is on fire heading for Heathrow, what looks like an impending catastrophe he is helpless to do anything about.
Later in the day, everywhere he turns, the mass of marchers is also a presence -- peaceful, yet their enormous size and potential threatening.
The plane and the marchers -- like the danger in Iraq, both Saddam Hussein's criminal rule and the violent solution that is being considered -- are all kept at a distance: the world is close, but does not really intrude.
Indeed, Saturday is an intimate novel, McEwan focussing on Perowne's one-on-one interactions, only rarely bringing several people together at the same time -- and, not surprisingly, when the scene does get crowded, things get very ugly.
Perowne's world isn't upset, as might be expected, by the marchers, but by a fender-bender.
Not much of one: "By the standards of contemporary road traffic accidents -- Henry has done a total of five years in Accident and Emergency -- this is a trivial matter."
Indeed, it turns out there's barely any damage at all to his fancy car.
But it's an odd accident: because of the march the streets are deserted, no other cars, no other people.
Worse, for Perowne, is who the other party is: three men in a red BMW ("a vehicle he associates for no very good reason with criminality, drug dealing" -- McEwan trying too hard to make sure readers feel the growing menace).
Led by Baxter, they seem like thugs, and certainly act it.
They and Perowne have different ideas about how to settle this sort of thing, and the scene escalates into one of inescapable violence.
Except that neurosurgeon and sharp-eyed diagnostician Perowne realises that there's something wrong with Baxter.
The man has Huntington's Disease, a cruel, debilitating ailment.
Baxter knows (and knows what awaits him), and when he realises Perowne knows he backs off (and has his mates back off too).
It's enough to allow Perowne to escape -- though the memory of what happened, and how he acted, haunts him for most of the rest of the day.
And then there's that red BMW he thinks he repeatedly sees as he drives about town .....
Needless to say, Perowne does not manage to escape Baxter entirely, and it comes to another confrontation.
Baxter's disease makes him dangerous: "a man who believes he has no future and is therefore free of consequences".
The disease also manifests itself in mood swings and unpredictable behaviour.
Perowne is curious about the case, from a medical point of view, and can't help but try to regard and analyse it as he would with any patient in his office.
He also sincerely wants to help, though it is difficult to balance that with Baxter's threatening actions.
Ironically (if not entirely surprisingly), it is art -- poetry, a tool that Perowne doesn't have at his disposal -- that prevents the situation from getting out of hand at the most critical point.
(It is this, surely, that drives Perowne to head back to work that Saturday night, the need to reassert his own life-and-death power, the operating theatre the only place he knows he is in control.)
Saturday is a book filled with tension, but also strikingly anticlimactic.
Potential disaster -- the burning plane, the march that might explode into violence -- is constantly averted.
Arguably the most unpleasant confrontation does not even involve Baxter -- scenes that are the most brutal but also over relatively quickly -- but Perowne's drawn out squash-game with a friend and co-worker, the bitter aftertaste of which lingers (but is also ultimately resolved).
Tension isn't a bad thing, Perowne feels: "when things are difficult, tension is best maintained".
In Saturday McEwan depicts a man who has done well and leads a comfortable life, happily married, a proud father, a respected professional.
But the world at large, dealing with others or with questions of politics (repeatedly touched upon, especially regarding Iraq), makes for complications that, if not entirely baffling, do leave him ill at ease.
He's only really comfortable with the inner circle of closest family, and, especially, in his operating theatre:
Though things sometimes go wrong, he can control outcomes here, he has resources, controlled conditions.
McEwan also chooses to emphasise -- a bit too strongly -- the loss of control that approaches, and Perowne's reluctant acknowledgement of the inevitable.
He gives himself just a bit more time at squash, and one more London marathon, he knows in a few years he'll be doing more administrative work than surgery.
Bashing the point of a comfortable world gently unravelling home with an oversized hammer, McEwan offers not only the demented mother, but ultimately the news that the daughter and son are well and truly set to begin their own, independent lives as well.
Despite all that happens, and all that Perowne learns, it really is almost just another Saturday, a typical mix of the mundane and the extraordinary.
McEwan almost pulls it off, but he tries too hard.
Not quite inhabiting Perowne's mind, but closely following his actions and meandering thoughts, McEwan does offer an interesting character study -- but he tries to do just a bit too much (too much of import comes together here), revealing the book as a construct, rather than simply a narrative in the process.
What McEwan excels at is in the details, the page after page descriptions of what and who Perowne encounters and experiences and remembers, especially the small gestures or specific details, be they a clinical diagnosis or some realisation about one of his children.
Some scenes go on too long -- the squash game, for example -- but overall McEwan leads the reader on quite nicely.
Saturday also remains unpredictable: as in life, few things play out exactly as one expects.
There are also some very nice small bits of the past woven in, including how Perowne and his wife came together, or Daisy's relationship with her grandfather.
And McEwan even manages a perfectly placed blow against Tony Blair, describing Perowne's one encounter with the man; it has nothing to do with the crisis of this day (Iraq), and yet devastatingly pegs the PM as a man unwilling and unable to see anything but what he has set his mind on.
Saturday is a well-crafted book, carefully and adeptly written.
Tension ripples through it -- yet it returns always to calm.
It remains focussed on a small world, even as unsettling events and figures, small and large, threaten to intrude on it.
The central character's world is a small, fixed one, where he is able to maintain control -- even, still, on this Saturday -- but this is a day that reminds him that it won't always be this way.
A strange mix of ambition and restraint, Saturday isn't entirely satisfactory, but in its relentless focus on "the actual, not the magical" it is an interesting and largely successful work.
Some readers may be disappointed that there isn't more action to it, but there's something to be said for McEwan's reserved approach too -- something McEwan does better than most anyone writing nowadays..
Note: In his review in The Guardian, Mark Lawson observes:
"In a novel of great sureness at the level of both action and language, McEwan makes one curious choice: the quotations from Daisy Perowne's debut volume of poetry are actually published lines by Craig Raine, giving the book an additional subplot in which, beyond the plot's call on various sections of the Metropolitan police, you expect the literary cops to arrive and arrest Daisy for plagiarism.
It's a matter of debate whether it's the reader or the writer who is being too clever here."
Note: In a 23 January 2005 interview in the Sunday Times, McEwan acknowledges that much of the book is autobiographical, from the mother succumbing to dementia to Tony Blair's case of mistaking identity.
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Other books by Ian McEwan under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See the index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
British author Ian McEwan is the author of many fine novels.
He won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam in 1998.
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© 2005-2021 the complete review
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