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.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.18(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.67(d)|
About the Author
Ian McEwan is the bestselling author of more than ten books, including the novels Atonement, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the W. H. Smith Literary Award, The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize, and The Child in Time, winner of the Whitbread Award, as well as the story collections First Love, Last Rites, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and In Between the Sheets. He has also written screenplays, plays, television scripts, a children’s book, and the libretto for an oratorio. He lives in London.
Date of Birth:June 21, 1948
Place of Birth:Aldershot, England
Education:B.A., University of Sussex, 1970; M.A., University of East Anglia, 1971
Read an Excerpt
Some hours before dawn Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes to find himself already in motion, pushing back the covers from a sitting position, and then rising to his feet. It’s not clear to him when exactly he became conscious, nor does it seem relevant. He’s never done such a thing before, but he isn’t alarmed or even faintly surprised, for the movement is easy, and pleasurable in his limbs, and his back and legs feel unusually strong. He stands there, naked by the bed – he always sleeps naked – feeling his full height, aware of his wife’s patient breathing and of the wintry bedroom air on his skin. That too is a pleasurable sensation. His bedside clock shows three forty. He has no idea what he’s doing out of bed: he has no need to relieve himself, nor is he disturbed by a dream or some element of the day before, or even by the state of the world. It’s as if, standing there in the darkness, he’s materialised out of nothing, fully formed, unencumbered. He doesn’t feel tired, despite the hour or his recent labours, nor is his conscience troubled by any recent case. In fact, he’s alert and empty-headed and inexplicably elated. With no decision made, no motivation at all, he begins to move towards the nearest of the three bedroom windows and experiences such ease and lightness in his tread that he suspects at once he’s dreaming or sleepwalking. If it is the case, he’ll be disappointed. Dreams don’t interest him; that this should be real is a richer possibility. And he’s entirely himself, he is certain of it, and he knows that sleep is behind him: to know the difference between it and waking, to know the boundaries, is the essence of sanity.
The bedroom is large and uncluttered. As he glides across it with almost comic facility, the prospect of the experience ending saddens him briefly, then the thought is gone. He is by the centre window, pulling back the tall folding wooden shutters with care so as not to wake Rosalind. In this he’s selfish as well as solicitous. He doesn’t wish to be asked what he’s about – what answer could he give, and why relinquish this moment in the attempt? He opens the second shutter, letting it concertina into the casement, and quietly raises the sash window. It is many feet taller than him, but it slides easily upwards, hoisted by its concealed lead counterweight. His skin tightens as the February air pours in around him, but he isn’t troubled by the cold. From the second floor he faces the night, the city in its icy white light, the skeletal trees in the square, and thirty feet below, the black arrowhead railings like a row of spears. There’s a degree or two of frost and the air is clear. The streetlamp glare hasn’t quite obliterated all the stars; above the Regency façade on the other side of the square hang remnants of constellations in the southern sky. That particular façade is a reconstruction, a pastiche – wartime Fitzrovia took some hits from the Luftwaffe – and right behind is the Post Office Tower, municipal and seedy by day, but at night, half-concealed and decently illuminated, a valiant memorial to more optimistic days.
And now, what days are these? Baffled and fearful, he mostly thinks when he takes time from his weekly round to consider. But he doesn’t feel that now. He leans forwards, pressing his weight onto his palms against the sill, exulting in the emptiness and clarity of the scene. His vision – always good – seems to have sharpened. He sees the paving stone mica glistening in the pedestrianised square, pigeon excrement hardened by distance and cold into something almost beautiful, like a scattering of snow. He likes the symmetry of black cast-iron posts and their even darker shadows, and the lattice of cobbled gutters. The overfull litter baskets suggest abundance rather than squalor; the vacant benches set around the circular gardens look benignly expectant of their daily traffic – cheerful lunchtime office crowds, the solemn, studious boys from the Indian hostel, lovers in quiet raptures or crisis, the crepuscular drug dealers, the ruined old lady with her wild, haunting calls. Go away! she’ll shout for hours at a time, and squawk harshly, sounding like some marsh bird or zoo creature.
Standing here, as immune to the cold as a marble statue, gazing towards Charlotte Street, towards a foreshortened jumble of façades, scaffolding and pitched roofs, Henry thinks the city is a success, a brilliant invention, a biological masterpiece – millions teeming around the accumulated and layered achievements of the centuries, as though around a coral reef, sleeping, working, entertaining themselves, harmonious for the most part, nearly everyone wanting it to work. And the Perownes’ own corner, a triumph of congruent proportion; the perfect square laid out by Robert Adam enclosing a perfect circle of garden – an eighteenth-century dream bathed and embraced by modernity, by street light from above, and from below by fibre-optic cables, and cool fresh water coursing down pipes, and sewage borne away in an instant of forgetting.
An habitual observer of his own moods, he wonders about this sustained, distorting euphoria. Perhaps down at the molecular level there’s been a chemical accident while he slept – something like a spilled tray of drinks, prompting dopamine-like receptors to initiate a kindly cascade of intracellular events; or it’s the prospect of a Saturday, or the paradoxical consequence of extreme tiredness. It’s true, he finished the week in a state of unusual depletion. He came home to an empty house, and lay in the bath with a book, content to be talking to no one. It was his literate, too literate daughter Daisy who sent the biography of Darwin which in turn has something to do with a Conrad novel she wants him to read and which he has yet to start – seafaring, however morally fraught, doesn’t much interest him. For some years now she’s been addressing what she believes is his astounding ignorance, guiding his literary education, scolding him for poor taste and insensitivity. She has a point – straight from school to medical school to the slavish hours of a junior doctor, then the total absorption of neurosurgery training spliced with committed fatherhood – for fifteen years he barely touched a non-medical book at all. On the other hand, he thinks he’s seen enough death, fear, courage and suffering to supply half a dozen literatures. Still, he submits to her reading lists – they’re his means of remaining in touch as she grows away from her family into unknowable womanhood in a suburb of Paris; tonight she’ll be home for the first time in six months – another cause for euphoria.
Reading Group Guide
“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 group’s reading of Saturday, Ian McEwan’s highly acclaimed novel of urban life in the aftermath of 9/11.
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 Schrödinger’s 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 Bellow’s novel Herzog, which was published in 1964. The list describes the conditions surrounding “what it means to be a man” in Herzog’s 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 reader?
4. On the story’s opening page we are introduced to the main character as “Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon” [p. 1]. How does Henry’s 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. He’s 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 Perowne’s view of Baxter from a neurological perspective change the reader’s 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 Daisy’s 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 McEwan’s The Child in Time, a child is kidnapped during a visit to the supermarket and never seen again. In Enduring Love, the protagonist’s 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 Arnold’s 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 poem’s speaker express?
12. McEwan’s choice to locate the narrative perspective within a single point of view (Henry’s) 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 Henry’s 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 McEwan’s approach differ?
13. Perowne takes a wry view of both the American President and the British Prime Minister. What is wrong, in Henry’s opinion, with both of these men? What motivates them? What does Henry and Rosalind’s 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 brain’s 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 Henry’s faith in science? In terms of the problems presented in Saturday, what can science solve, and what can it not?
15. In Virginia Woolf’s 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 hasn’t shared his suffering and fears that her privileged life has cut her off from real empathy. Does Henry’s decision to operate on Baxter reflect a similar sense of guilt or responsibility? Why does Henry not share Rosalind’s 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 it’s 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 Baxter’s brain [pp. 253–66]. What is the effect of these passages, and what do they tell us about McEwan’s style? What sets McEwan apart from other contemporary writers of literary fiction?
18. Henry doesn’t 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. It’s 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 attack’s 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 world’s 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?