Saturdaym by Ian McEwan
It was something like 27 years ago that I bought a book of the young Ian McEwan’s short stories, called ‘Between the sheets’, with a suitably alluring cover. I was impressed by the cool, surgical, yet passionate style of his writing, but, somehow, never followed up on any of his other writings, until, by coincidence, two people asked recently if I had read his ‘Saturday’. I had previously read a good review of it, and slightly shamefaced at my lack of contact with contemporary British writers, I borrowed a copy and read it slowly and thoughtfully. The book deserves this approach, and would probably reward with extra depths on a second reading.
The cover of my paperback copy catches the opening chapter perfectly, with a view of the central London skyline, including the telecom tower and a comet-like streak across the night sky. That turns out to be a plane making an emergency landing at Heathrow, with an engine on fire. I doubt whether a stricken airplane would be allowed to traverse London, but everything else in the story is meticulously described. McEwan has learnt a huge amount about Neurosurgery, as he describes in his acknowledgements, without showing his research on his sleeve. The descriptions of the work of the main character, who is a Neurosurgeon, are fascinating, and a welcome departure from the usual self-involved world of arty people that appear to dominate British fiction.
Aristotle prescribes that the action of a good Greek tragedy must take place within the confines of one day, and McEwan chooses to submit to this discipline: an eventful Saturday in the life of one man, with his wife, children, father-in-law, mother, medical colleagues, squash partner and some criminals. There are a number of brilliant set pieces embedded in an artistic whole, such as: a description of a squash game, mediations on senile dementia, arguments about the war in Iraq, a description of am operation, a car crash and subsequent argument and so on.
McEwan dares to tackle very contemporary issues, and only time will tell whether it maintains its relevance and interest to future readers – but I think it will, for the book transcends the current news stories to deal elegantly, but not mawkishly or prescriptively with universal issues. The story hangs on the Matthew Arnold poem ‘Dover Beach’, and if there is a message it may be quoted from the poem: “Ah love, let us be true to one another!” McEwan is less downbeat than Arnold’s conclusion to ‘Dover Beach’, and presents positive reasons to preserve a (incoherent) faith and joy in life.