Set in a post-9/11, pre-Iraq war world, Saturday portrays with startling clarity a day in the life of an ordinary man and the wider world he represents. Using a partly stream-of-consciousness narration, Ian McEwan captures with a keen eye the bittersweet qualities of human relationships and the universal fear of the unknown, thereby crafting a naturalistic depiction of an Everyman—and by extension, a nation—on the cusp of a new era.
The story opens within the bedroom of Henry Perowne, a British neurosurgeon, who, while he wife lays sleeping, witnesses a plane catch fire in the air while he gazes out the window one Saturday morning. This sighting provokes him to contemplate his relatively privileged life and the fragility of it; and so begins an eventful day, which involves, among other things, driving through blocked roads amid a mass anti-war demonstration, playing a game of squash with a colleague, visiting his mother in a nursing home and welcoming his grown daughter back from Paris. Throughout a series of events—some mundane, some out of the ordinary—we get to know Henry Perowne, both through his present actions and a series of flashbacks, and by the novel’s end he becomes as familiar to us as a friend or an acquaintance. At some point he ceases to be words on the page and emerges as a fully-formed human being; a character that readers would easily come to care about.
The familial relationships between members of the Perowne family are portrayed with brutal honesty, which lends a painfully familiar quality to the dialogue among them. There’s the divergence between Henry’s pragmatism and those of his romantic, artistically gifted children (his son Theo is a musician, his daughter Daisy a poet); the clashing of Henry and Daisy’s political views; and the compulsive drinking of Henry’s father-in-law. Yet there exists an undeniably resilient bond between them all, as they are brought together both by causes for celebration and instances of calamity. What I found most moving was the love between Henry and his wife, Rosalind, who remain bonded by their passion for each other after decades of marriage. The glue that holds the family together is indeed the love they share, and their differences as well as their similarities.
Given that Saturday is intended to capture the existential musings of the average man, rather than to tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, at times it seems to lack direction; the narrative may meander, leaving readers wishing for something to pin down to make it easier to follow. Ultimately the well-rounded storytelling and vivid characterizations give the impression that the story continues after the last page has been turned. Despite the frustrations they may have with the narrative, readers will most likely be left wondering what the future holds for the Perowne family, and wishing them well in their years to come.
Honest, intimate and familiar, Saturday satisfies on many different levels, capturing the bigger picture of life as well as the commonplace worries of the working-class family. For an in-depth, nuanced portrayal of the human condition, complete with existentialism, pick this one up and savor the prose while some classical music, preferably piano, plays in the background. This may put a reader in the right mood for McEwan’s narration style.