The magic of Ian McEwan

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Seldom have I read a better book. It’s about a day in a man’s life. Forty-eight-year-old neurosurgeon Henry Perowne wakes up in the middle of the night in his posh London home, sees a plane in the sky and fears it is going down in flames. But there’s nothing he can do.

Morning comes. There’s no news of the plane. Perowne goes for his usual Saturday game of squash, gets caught up in an anti-war demonstration — it is February 15, 2003, people are protesting against the coming Iraq war — and, trying to escape the gridlock, has a minor collision with another car. But it has major consequences. The other car’s occupants barge into his home in the middle of a family reunion.

Yes, it’s a domestic drama, and the way I have told it, it doesn’t sound anything much.

Ah, but the language. McEwan’s vivid descriptions of scenes and relationships, his empathy for Perowne and his happy, successful family — the wife is a newspaper lawyer, the son a talented blues guitarist, the daughter an award-winning poet — and even for the hooligans who burst into their world, lift the story to another dimension. It’s a touching story of people in the post-9/11 world. Perowne is Everyman. For all his professional success, he is an ordinary man — a loving husband, a loving father, but helpless when danger threatens his wife and daughter.

McEwan paints a moving portrait of a man vulnerable in his love for his family and his awareness of his physical powers diminishing with age. He is portrayed beautifully:

“His head hair, though thinning, is still reddish brown. Only on his pubes are the first scattered coils of silver.”

McEwan’s command of language and powers of description are extraordinary.  He describes how Perowne met his wife as an intern when she came to the hospital. She had a brain tumour which had to be removed to save her from blindness. McEwan describes the procedure eloquently:

“To go right into the face, remove the tumour through the nose, to deliver the patient back into her life, without pain or infection, with her vision restored was a miracle of human ingenuity.”

McEwan has a way with words, and it’s only fitting that when danger threatens his wife and daughter, they are saved by a poem: Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. One of the hooligans taunts the daughter when he discovers she is a poet and commands her to read a poem. She reads Dover Beach. “You wrote that,” he says excitedly. Ignorant and ill-educated, he is moved by the poem though he doesn’t know who the author is.

That may seem extraordinary here in prosperous Singapore where young government “scholars” are sent for undergraduate studies to top British and American universities, where ministers earn million-dollar salaries and school students were not encouraged until recently to read English literature for their school-leaving examinations. Bright students were — and still are — encouraged to read law or take up medicine or engineering. Perowne himself could be a role model for them. A successful surgeon with a loving family who has no time for literature.

But I recall places where poetry and literature, music and drama, flourished, where people loved quoting writers. Dover Beach is a favourite poem of mine and my wife’s.

I am not surprised that words can move even a young hooligan. I am not spoiling the story by revealing this: it doesn’t end there. This anyway isn’t a book to be read just for the story’s sake. One may dip into it even after reading the story for the pleasure of words. McEwan gives voice to our innermost feelings which we don’t have the words to express. What could be more beautiful than this scene, where Perowne joins his wife in bed:

“He fits himself around her, her silk pyjamas, her scent, her warmth, her beloved form, and draws closer to her. Blindly, he kisses her nape. There’s always this, is one of his remaining thoughts. And then: there’s only this. And, at last, faintly, falling: this day’s over.”

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