Synopses & Reviews
From the pen of a master — the #1 bestselling, Booker Prize–winning author of Atonement
— comes an astonishing novel that captures the fine balance of happiness and the unforeseen threats that can destroy it. A brilliant, thrilling page-turner that will keep readers on the edge of their seats.
Saturday is a masterful novel set within a single day in February 2003. Henry Perowne is a contented man — a successful neurosurgeon, happily married to a newspaper lawyer, and enjoying good relations with his children. Henry wakes to the comfort of his large home in central London on this, his day off. He is as at ease here as he is in the operating room. Outside the hospital, the world is not so easy or predictable. There is an impending war against Iraq, and a general darkening and gathering pessimism since the New York and Washington attacks two years before.
On this particular Saturday morning, Perowne’s day moves through the ordinary to the extraordinary. After an unusual sighting in the early morning sky, he makes his way to his regular squash game with his anaesthetist, trying to avoid the hundreds of thousands of marchers filling the streets of London, protesting against the war. A minor accident in his car brings him into a confrontation with a small-time thug. To Perowne’s professional eye, something appears to be profoundly wrong with this young man, who in turn believes the surgeon has humiliated him — with savage consequences that will lead Henry Perowne to deploy all his skills to keep his family alive.
From the Hardcover edition.
"In the predawn sky on a Saturday morning, London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne sees a plane with a wing afire streaking toward Heathrow. His first thought is terrorism especially since this is the day of a public demonstration against the pending Iraq war. Eventually, danger to Perowne and his family will come from another source, but the plane, like the balloon in the first scene of Enduring Love
, turns out to be a harbinger of a world forever changed. Meanwhile, the reader follows Perowne through his day, mainly via an interior monologue. His cerebral peregrination records, in turn, the meticulous details of brain surgery, a car accident followed by a confrontation with a hoodlum, a far-from-routine squash game, a visit to Perowne's mother in a nursing home and a family reunion. It is during the latter event, at the end of the day, that the ominous pall that has hovered over the narrative explodes into violence, and Perowne's sense that the world has become 'a commuity of anxiety' plays out in suspense, delusion, heroism and reconciliation. The tension throughout the novel between science (Perowne's surgery) and art (his daughter is a poet; his son a musician) culminates in a synthesis of the two, and a grave, hopeful, meaningful, transcendent ending. If this novel is not as complex a work as McEwan's bestselling Atonement
, it is nonetheless a wise and poignant portrait of the way we live now." Publishers Weekly
(Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"An increasingly mellowed but no less gripping McEwan....A sort of middle-class humanist manifesto: when you find yourself fortunate beyond all measure in a random universe, gratitude, generosity, and compassion are a decent response." Kirkus Reviews
"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
"Saturday is a tightly wound tour de force of several strands a Hitchcockian thriller, an allegory of the post-9/11 world, the portrait of a very attractive family, and a meditation on the fragility of life and all that we most value." Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
"Few literary events are today met with as much enthusiasm as the publication of a McEwan novel. Saturday
, a brilliant and graceful hymn to the contented contemporary man, will be greeted with cheers." Anita Shreve, The Boston Globe
lives up to its own standards throughout. 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
"One of the most oblique but also most serious contributions to the post-9/11, post-Iraq war literature, [Saturday] succeeds in ridiculing on every page the view of its hero that fiction is useless to the modern world." Mark Lawson, The Guardian
"The man who could staunchly write, as the southern extremity of Manhattan was still awash in fire and stench, that in effect Amor vincit omnia here
lucidly shows us that civilization and culture and the life of the mind, fragile as they seemingly are, nonetheless have a resilience that can outlast barbarism." Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly
(read the entire Atlantic Monthly review
"There is no secret as to why Ian McEwan has gained such a large, intelligent and devoted readership. In book after book, and now, especially in Saturday
, he has gone directly against the grain of fashionable contemporary cynicism and proved that a novel can be topical without being either obvious or dogmatic, that a writer can derive aesthetic sense from confronting the world's concerns." Allen Barra, Salon.com
(read the entire Salon.com review
"The imagination is blessed by its holder, just as the humanities humanize only those who are willing to be humanized. Ian McEwan's imagination is worth cherishing; Mohammed Atta's is not. It is just this tension that surfaces in his fine and affecting new novel, and which is never quite resolved." James Wood, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
In his triumphant new novel, Ian McEwan, the bestselling author of Atonement, follows an ordinary man through a Saturday whose high promise gradually turns nightmarish. Henry Perowne a neurosurgeon, urbane, privileged, deeply in love with his wife and grown-up children plans to play a game of squash, visit his elderly mother, and cook dinner for his family. But after a minor traffic accident leads to an unsettling confrontation, Perowne must set aside his plans and summon a strength greater than he knew he had in order to preserve the life that is dear to him.
About the Author
Ian McEwan is the author of nine novels, including Amsterdam
, for which he won the Booker Prize in 1998, and Atonement
Reading Group Guide
1. Henry Perowne has a loving, intelligent wife, two gifted, handsome children, a large, elegant house in central London, and a job that deeply satisfies him. He appears to be, in all ways, a successful and enviable individual. He is also thoughtful, ethical, and intelligent. Do these facts make him an agreeable protagonist? What are his flaws or his failings?
2. Why is the parable of Schrödingers cat [p. 18] so fitting an end to the first section of the novel? Why does Henry reject it as a thought experiment? How does the image of the cat in the box address the idea of disasters that occur outside the range of our own consciousness?
3. McEwan takes his epigraph from Saul Bellows novel Herzog, which was published in 1964. The list describes the conditions surrounding “what it means to be a man” in Herzogs America. How closely do these conditions still apply in the lives of Perowne and Baxter? Does McEwan, like Bellow, wish to remind his readers that “you yourself are a child of this mass and a brother to all the rest. Or else an ingrate, dilettante, idiot”? Does Saturday depend upon the moral engagement of the
4. On the storys opening page we are introduced to the main character as “Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon” [p. 1]. How does Henrys professional training shape the way he thinks about the world around him, and about himself? In his work, Henry experiences a kind of self-erasure: “Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. Hes been delivered into a pure present. . . . In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness” [p. 266]. How does his love of work shape his life?
5. Saturday is unique in that it limits its time frame to a single day in recent history—February 15, 2003—a day that most readers will remember because of the massive anti-war demonstrations that took place. What is the effect of this straitened approach to time, and its attendant view of history-in-the-making? How, in light of world events since then, does it feel to look back to that day, before the war in Iraq began?
6. Clearly Baxter is a violent and deeply unstable man; is he also likeable in certain ways? How does Perownes view of Baxter from a neurological perspective change the readers relationship to him?
7. Just after September 11, 2001, Ian McEwan wrote an essay for the Guardian newspaper about the effect of watching those terrible, world-changing events on television. He wrote, “We remember what we have seen, and we daydream helplessly. Lately, most of us have inhabited the space between the terrible actuality and these daydreams. Waking before dawn, going about our business during the day, we fantasize ourselves into the events. What if it was me?”* In Saturday, Henry awakens before dawn to the sight of a flaming aircraft and is unsettled by the threat this vision presents to his city, his family, and his way of life. In what ways does Saturday communicate this sense of living with an ongoing threat of a large-scale disaster? How do the characters in the novel cope with this somewhat abstracted sense of danger?
*Read the Guardian essay: www.guardian.co.uk/wtccrash/story/0,1300,552408,00.html
8. During his visit to his mother, Henry acknowledges a belated appreciation of her way of thinking, which as a younger man he had thought trivial and unintelligent: “He had no business as a young man being condescending towards her. . . . Unlike in Daisys novels, moments of precise reckoning are rare in real life” [p. 159]. How does Henry communicate with his mother, and what does his attitude toward her tell us about him? In what ways does Saturday embrace the conventions of fiction, such as “moments of precise reckoning,” and how does it deny them? Does it work in the chaotic, inconclusive style of real life, or does it in fact give us moments of resolution and reckoning, forgiveness and satisfying closure?
9. In the first few pages of McEwans The Child in Time, a child is kidnapped during a visit to the supermarket and never seen again. In Enduring Love, the protagonists life changes irrevocably when he sees a man fall to his death from a hot-air balloon. At the outset of Saturday, the opening disaster appears to be coming from airborne terrorists attacking the city; the real danger comes from a revenge-seeking man who has been damaged by his own unlucky genetic fate. What effect, if any, does this unexpected shift from a public terror to a private one have on the story?
10. British critics have expressed a sense of disbelief that Henry would not recognize the lines of Matthew Arnolds poem “Dover Beach,”* one of the most famous poems in English literature. Yet Henry has pointed out repeatedly that he is impatient when reading literature. Is it ironic that Henry—a character, after all, in a literary work—is so resistant to the appeal of fiction and poetry?
*Read the poem online at: http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/poem/89.html
11. Why might McEwan have chosen “Dover Beach” as the poem that saves Daisy by appealing so powerfully to Baxter [pp. 228-30]? What does it mean to him? What emotions does the poems speaker express?
12. McEwans choice to locate the narrative perspective within a single point of view (Henrys) focuses the reader on the subject of human consciousness. Stuck in traffic just before his collision with Baxter, Henry thinks, “A second can be a long time in introspection” [p. 80]. How does the description of Henrys introspection, which makes up a large part of the novel, affect its pace? If you have read other novels (like those of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, or James Joyce) that delve as closely as Saturday into the representation of human consciousness, how does McEwans approach differ?
13. Perowne takes a wry view of both the American President and the British Prime Minister. What is wrong, in Henrys opinion, with both of these men? What motivates them? What does Henry and Rosalinds brief meeting with Tony Blair expose about men in power?
14. Operating on Baxter, Perowne thinks, “Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brains fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious? . . . He knows it will come, the secret will be revealed-over decades, as long as the scientists and the institutions remain in place, the explanations will refine themselves into an irrefutable truth about consciousness” [pp. 262—63]. Do you agree with Henrys faith in science? In terms of the problems presented in Saturday, what can science solve, and what can it not?
15. In Virginia Woolfs Mrs. Dalloway, a wealthy society woman learns at a party she is hosting that a shell-shocked veteran of World War I has killed himself by jumping from a window. She feels guilty and ashamed that she hasnt shared his suffering and fears that her privileged life has cut her off from real empathy. Does Henrys decision to operate on Baxter reflect a similar sense of guilt or responsibility? Why does Henry not share Rosalinds desire for revenge?
16. McEwan is interested in the contrast between the human capacity for empathy, which is strengthened by the act of reading fiction, and our capacity for violence against each other: “We are capable of acts of extraordinary destruction. I think its inherent. I think one of the great tasks of art is really to explore that. . . . I personally think the novel, above all forms in literature, is able to investigate human nature and try and understand those two sides, all those many, many sides of human nature.”* How does Saturday engage in this juxtaposition of violence with empathy? Which of the characters in the novel are most attuned to the experience of others? If you have read Atonement, are the two novels similar or different in their handling of the question of imaginative empathy?
*Read the complete Frontline interview:
17. Saturday features several bravura passages of descriptive writing, such as the confrontation between Henry and Baxter [pp. 81-100], the squash game [pp. 104-118], and the surgical operation on Baxters brain [pp. 253-66]. What is the effect of these passages, and what do they tell us about McEwans style? What sets McEwan apart from other contemporary writers of literary fiction?
18. Henry doesnt join the peace march because to do so would express a more uncomplicated view of events than he actually holds. He looks, with hindsight, at the ideologies of the previous century: “Now we think we do see, how do things stand? After the ruinous experiments of the lately deceased century, after so much vile behaviour, so many deaths, a queasy agnosticism has settled around these matters of justice and redistributed wealth. No more big ideas. The world must improve, if at all, by tiny steps. People mostly take an existential view-having to sweep the streets for a living looks like simple bad luck. Its not a visionary age. The streets need to be clean. Let the unlucky enlist” [p. 74]. How would you characterize his moral point of view?
19. For Henry, both the fiery plane and the peace march invoke thoughts of terrorism: “London, his small part of it, lies wide open, impossible to defend, waiting for its bomb, like a hundred other cities. Rush hour will be a convenient time. . . . The authorities agree an attacks inevitable” [p. 286]. One reviewer observed that in the four years that have passed since 9/11, “Security . . . has become the great obsession. . . . The prevailing public mood has come to resemble closely that of an Ian McEwan novel. Constant menace, punctuated with nightmarish atrocities; the insult of the worlds continuing normality: these are things we all understand very well” [Theo Tait, The Times Literary Supplement (London), February 9, 2005]. What is it like to read this novel in the wake not only of 9/11 but also of the July 2005 attacks on London? In what ways does it reflect the changes in your own life and consciousness?
“Dazzling. . . . Powerful. . . . McEwan has shown how we . . . live today.” —The New York Times
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your groups reading of Saturday, Ian McEwans highly acclaimed novel of urban life in the aftermath of 9/11.