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HP 14th Feb 2005 15:40

Ian McEwan
Let me first say, I am a huge McEwan fan. Okay - fashionwise, I'm a modest size 10 - but literary-wise, for this particular gent, put me in the Evans outsize department. And why do I so like the chap? Because after reading Atonement, I was fortunate enough to hear an interview McEwan gave confessing the difficulties he encountered whilst writing it. Apparently, for a while, he enjoyed what could only be described as a 'honeymoon' phase, where each day he would sit down to write and the words would tumble forth in an abundance of happy harmony - requiring very little re-writing. By 2.00pm in the afternoon, to his delight, he would have a very respectable 1000-1500 of the right words in the right order and so off he would skip to play cricket with his son to relax after a highly satisfying and productive morning. And for a hallowed spell, McEwan became convinced he had arrived at a state of sublime grace whereby all future writing would be as easy, joyful and inspired. Oh Thilly, Thilly Man! Such complacency was rewarded (as complacency is wont to be) by the most dreadful ensuing phase of stuttering and struggling over each and every sentence, finding nothing that pleased and managing to produce but a paltry 300-500 words daily; all of which seemed to McEwan to be the wrong words in the wrong order. Of course, as any reader of Atonement knows, such struggles were overcome and the book turned out to be (at least for me) his finest to date. Or was until I read Saturday. See, I got there eventually!!!

However, Saturday although equally as enjoyable and skilfully crafted as Atonement, is a beastie of a totally different hue. Whereas the story of Bryony and the consequences of her actions unfold over the course of her lifetime - a matter of several decades, Saturday is simply one (albeit highly eventful) day in the life of Henry Perowne, devoted husband, proud father and eminent neurosurgeon. The book, set very much in the present day, with the Saturday in question coinciding with the Iraqi anti-war protest march in London, is a collection of the thoughts, reactions, emotions and drives of this middle-aged, wealthy professional as he begins a typical weekend. A typical weekend that quickly becomes worryingly untypical and one destined to bring lasting consequences.

As ever, McEwan doesn't mess about - bless him! The opening pages (as with most of his novels) present the reader with a highly dramatic event unfolding even as you turn that first page. A thread of tension that tugs invisibly, yet insidiously, pulling you on - on through even the quieter, more reflective passages, on through the delights and niggles of family life, through the fiercely competitive male at play (a game of squash, in this case), and on to where the growing sense of 'something wicked this way comes' erupts in a scene that had this reader at least, holding her breath and reading faster and faster - and on, on, on to the very last page.

I am not going to divulge the ending, this is far too good a book to spoil in such a way, nor will I fill you in on the rest of the details - I don't think I could do them justice, to be honest. But I will indulge in a spot of lyrical waxing, if you'll forgive me. McEwan's writing is wonderful. Some may be disappointed that the mellifluous, seamless phrasing so richly abundant in Atonement is less prevalent in his latest offering, the author using a plainer, more workmanlike style of prose perhaps. But it was perfectly appropriate, I felt - totally in keeping with the very logical, pragmatic protagonist. Perowne is not a sentimental man - nor is he, by his own admission - particularly in tune with the arts. His daughter's and father-in-law's poetry (both are published poets) rather mystify him. This is a man, after all, who relishes the accuracy of the knife, the essential precision that is required for medical knowledge. And yet, McEwan is such a concise, accurate and above all meticulous observer of emotion, of deed and event, that there is much beauty to be found in the tone he adopts here. I have to confess, I temporarily abandoned Cloud Atlas in order to read this, and have raced through its slightly short of 300 pages far faster than I worked my way through the equivalent of Mitchell's frightfully clever, but everchanging succession of stories. I will resume CA - but after reading Saturday, I know I shall be pining for the simple honesty, the compulsive page-turning quality to be found in a simple tale, beautifully told. Read, people. McEwan is in a class of his own. (And besides, after hearing that interview - I do so like the man!)

John Self 14th Feb 2005 15:58

Thanks for this review, Honey. I shall be starting on Saturday this evening, not without some trepidation I admit, because for me McEwan has always been an all-or-nothing man. First Love, Last Rites? Terrific. In Between the Sheets? Rotten. Enduring Love? Great. The Child in Time? Woeful. Atonement? Hurrah. Amsterdam? Hurroo. (I can't remember a damn thing about Black Dogs or The Comfort of Strangers but let's say one was good and one was bad for the sake of balance, hokay?) So I hope that he's not - like Rupert Thomson - doing a good-book crap-book thing. I have faith in your judgement, Honey. Apart from on Ernest Hemingway, obviously.

Wavid 14th Feb 2005 16:02

Shall we make this the official McEwan thread?

I own Atonement but have never read it, this despite having lent it to three people, all of whom gave it back saying how great it was. It's going to have to be read this year, I feel. I have Amsterdam, too, which (if I have understood John's 'Huroo') sounds like it will be a good one. And short too!

HP 14th Feb 2005 16:08


Apart from on Ernest Hemingway, obviously.
Ha! Well, I did think it was well written - fabulous dialogue, etc - but no, it didn't make me coffee or change my life, I'll give you that!

John Self 14th Feb 2005 16:43

You may have not understood my "hurroo", Wavid, which was intended to contrast with "hurrah" and suggest that Amsterdam was second-rate. I have a feeling I lifted the hurrah/hurroo thing from Blackadder but I could be wrong.

Wavid 14th Feb 2005 16:55

Oh. Not my first Blackadder inspired confusion.

But didn't it win a big prize?

amner 14th Feb 2005 16:57

You did, from the Blackadder the Third episode where George de-flowers the Duke of Wellington's nieces ('I spent a night of ecstasy with a pair of Wellingtons and I loved it') then gets the jitters because he knows the Iron Duke will kill him if he finds out:

Blackadder: Sir, it's Baldrick. You're perfectly safe.
Prince Regent: Well, hurrah!
Blackadder: [reads letter] Ah, until 6 o'clock tonight.
Prince Regent: Hurrooh.

HP 14th Feb 2005 17:07

Wavid - Atonement seemed to mark a new phase in McEwan's writing. I've read it twice, and both times revelled in the complete mastery he demonstrates in revealing the truth of the matter in almost poetic terms. Take this extract for example, describing Emily's migraine attack:


Emily Tallis had withdrawn from the white glare of the afternoon's heat to a cool and darkened bedroom. She was not in pain, not yet, but she was retreating before its threat. There were illuminated points in her vision, little pinpricks, as though the worn fabric of the visible world was being held up against a far brighter light. She felt in the top right corner of her brain a heaviness, the inert body weight of some curled and sleeping animal; but when she touched her head and pressed, the presence disappeared from the co-ordinates of actual space. Now it was in the top right corner of her mind, and in her imagination she could stand on tiptoe and raise her right hand to it. It was important, however, not to provoke it; once this lazy creature moved from the peripheries to the centre, then the knifing pains would obliterate all thought, and there would be no chance of dining with Leon and the family tonight. It bore her no malice, this animal, it was indifferent to her misery. It would move as a caged panther might: because it was awake, out of boredom, for the sake of movement itself, or for no reason at all, and with no awareness.
Only a migraine sufferer, I think, could have written that, don't you!

Amsterdam was okay but not great, and I'm afraid I have absolutely no memory of it, now (so long ago was it, since I read it) other than it was brief and entertaining and - of course - well written. McEwan's past troubles, seem to me, to have been ones of plots that weren't particularly well-structured, leaving the reader with but a blurred outline of events soon after turning the final page. Atonement was definitely an exception. The story nicely balanced and wonderfully rounded. Saturday is like that, too. Although it is not entirely without its irritations here and there; for instance, Perowne's daughter, Daisy, is intensely unlikeable, in my opinion. She's a blue-stocking whose company would be dull and heavy - far too intense and opinionated. Just the sort of woman I have little time for. Of course, Perowne as her proud father, doesn't see her like that at all, but that is as it should be. After all, McEwan is writing the whole story as seen through Perowne's eyes - and he is a devoted father. And like all devoted fathers, prone to a little blindness when it comes to the shortcomings of his progeny.

Back to Blackadder, boys you were ... :wink:

John Self 14th Feb 2005 17:12

In response to Wavid's other Q, yes, Amsterdam won the Booker Prize in 1998, but undeservedly, and was widely and perhaps wrongly seen as a sop to McEwan for not getting it in 1997 with the fine Enduring Love. There's nothing wrong with Amsterdam per se, it's just a bit thin and light compared with what came before and after. And the hardback which I have - signed and all, after seeing him at a reading! - is printed on ludicrously thick paper with big margins and frequent chapter breaks to make it look more like a proper novel than the novella it really is.

Colyngbourne 14th Feb 2005 17:38

Without running downstairs to find out, what was the one set in Berlin or somewhere, with the man tunnelling underneath the city? Or am I totally confused?

Although some McEwan's are better than others, and some are superlative (Atonement, Enduring Love), I like all of them, including Black Dogs (Which Had A Scary Bit Where I Didn't Dare Turn The Page), and the painful The Child in Time.

As much as I would love to read Saturday at once, I am going to wait for the joy of reading it in paperback in the autumn ( I presume), when I have possibly fewer books on my plate.

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