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SaturdayReview - Saturday
by Ian McEwan
Anchor, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Apr 18th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 16)

Saturday's main character is Henry Perowne, a very successful London neurosurgeon.† He is happily married with two adult children.† His son Theo is a young upcoming blues musician, who plays with some of the biggest names in music.† His daughter Daisy is a published poet, inspired by her mother's father, John Grammaticus, who is one of the best-known poets in the country.† The book relates the event of one day, during which all these characters gather together in their London home.† The family gathering is disturbed by Perowne's encounter with a disturbed young man, Baxter.† McEwan chronicles Perowne's thoughts about his life and family as he meets the demands of the day.†

The novel invites different possible reactions.† One is to wonder why we should be interested in this story of privilege and success.† McEwan seems deeply immersed in the intricacies of the English professional classes, and particularly in a family blessed by prodigious talents and wonderful opportunities.† The novel is on the verge of being deeply self-satisfied and uncritical.† Unless readers are particularly interested in this slice of life, they may find McEwan's writing tiresome.

However, the book is much more interesting as an exploration of more abstract issues.† Perowne takes a profoundly scientific view of the world, and his life is spent repairing damaged brains.† Yet he lives as a husband and father, and as a citizen of a country preparing to go to war with Iraq.† His children are both artists and approach the world in very different ways from himself.† The book explores these differences, and Perowne's struggle to match his scientific stance with the different ideas of his children.† Furthermore, Perowne's concerns, especially in his encounter with Baxter, are at least partly with sanity itself.† (Note that the rest of this review gives away several important parts of the plot.)

On waking very early in the morning for no apparent reason, he is instantly clear-headed.† McEwan observes that "he knows that sleep is behind him: to know the difference between it and waking, to know the boundaries, is the essence of sanity."† During his first encounter with Baxter, as Baxter punches him, "there remains in a portion of his thoughts a droning, pedestrian diagnostician who notes poor self-control, emotional lability, explosive temper, suggestive of reduced levels of GABA among the appropriate binding sites on striatal neurons."† He goes on to ask himself, during Baxter's attack, "who will ever find a morality, an ethics down among the enzymes and amino acids when the general taste is for looking in the other direction?"† Perowne starts talking with Baxter to delay further violence, and judges that the aggression has both a biological and a social basis, due to neurological disorder and a lack of opportunity.† He thinks about his attacker: "There's no way out for him.† No one can help.† But Perowne know himself to be incapable of pity.† Clinical experience wrung that from him long ago."†

Perowne's reaction to neurological disorder is challenged more when visiting his mother, who has severe dementia.† She is living in a residential home, because she is no longer able to live on her own.† She speaks in incoherent sentences and has very little memory left.† He does not look forward to his visits with her, and he obviously feels great sadness when he sees her so far from sanity.†

She isn't looking at him as she gathers her thoughts, but past him, concentrating on an elusive matter, staring as though through a window at an unbounded view.† She goes on speak, but remains silent.† Her pale green eyes, sunk deep in bowls of finely folded light brown skin, have a flat, dulled quality, like dusty stones under glass.† They give an accurate impression of understanding nothing.† He can't bring her news of the family -- the mention of strange names, any names, can alarm her.† So although she won't understand, he often talks to her about work.† What she warms to is the sound, the emotional tone of a friendly conversation.†

The terrible sense of loss here is expertly conveyed in McEwan's prose without describing Perowne's feelings directly.† Here, with his mother's untreatable condition, the neurosurgeon's expertise is no help to him, but the ability to speak in warm tones makes the only difference possible.†

The book reaches a climax with a set piece of a family gathering interrupted by intruders, Baxter and one of his friends.† It borders on the melodramatic, although it has a tinge of perversity reminiscent of McEwan's early short stories and novels.† If Saturday is ever made into a film or a BBC television drama, it will be a complete disaster, because the saving graces of the story come with McEwan's rich descriptions of the unfolding events.† Without them, the simple plot would be both ridiculous and embarrassing.† It's the philosophy that makes the story bearable.† With Baxter standing in the family living room brandishing a knife, Perowne reflects.†

There's no obvious intellectual deterioration yet -- the emotions go first, along with the physical coordination.† Anyone with significantly more than forty CAG repeats in the middle of an obscure gene on chromosome four is obliged to share this fate in their own particular way.† It is written.† No amount of love, drugs, Bible classes or prison sentencing can cure Baxter or shift him from his course.† It's spelled out in fragile proteins, but could be carved in stone, or tempered steel.

Perowne does not blame Baxter for his actions; rather he blames himself for provoking the man when he knew the risks.† As a clinician, he holds himself up to high standards.

The most direct confrontation between poetry and the laws of science occur in a bizarre point at which Daisy recites poetry aloud.† Baxter's twitching face is suddenly elated.† Although his condition makes him liable to sudden mood swings, the power of the poetry to change him from a life-threatening thug into something else is still extraordinary.† "Suddenly Baxter turns.† He's licking his lips, his smile is wet and beatific, his eyes are bright.† The voice is warm, and trembles with exalted feeling."

As befits any novel, McEwan is not making an argument for a particular thesis.† The complexities of the story refuse to allow it to be summarized simply as a debate on how a neurological perspective competes with a more humanistic understanding of life; but nevertheless that's a major theme of Saturday, and it is a fascinating one.† Despite the awkward plot and the staid setting, McEwan's assured writing draws the reader in to make the book very readable.†

This could be an excellent novel to use in health care professional courses on medical humanities to use as a starting point for discussions.

 

© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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