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Reviewed by Michael Dirda
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page T01


by Ian McEwan

Doubleday, 289 pp. $26

_____Book World Live_____
Ian McEwan will be online Tuesday, March 29, at 3:30 p.m. ET to discuss "Saturday" and his other works.
_____Online Extra: Chapter 1_____
This feature allows you to read the first chapter of a new book. This week's selection is "Saturday" by Ian McEwan.
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Ian McEwan is on a roll: His last novel, Atonement, received dream reviews, and he was called the best novelist in English, even compared in psychological astuteness with Jane Austen. The novel before that, Amsterdam, won the Booker Prize and caused one excited reviewer (me) to liken that gallows-humored tale to the work of Evelyn Waugh. And before Amsterdam there were Enduring Love and Black Dogs, both of which earned rapturous notices as well.

So there's little question that McEwan is supremely gifted and knows all the tricks and sleights of fiction. His latest novel, Saturday, might be a textbook example of how to generate a growing sense of disquiet with the tiniest finger-flicks of detail -- a broken mirror, a flash of red, two figures on a park bench. Slowly, readers may start to guess what will happen, but not how or when or to whom. McEwan makes us wait, lulls us into thinking we might be mistaken, and then -- just as we're feeling relaxed, bathed in well-being as after a big glass of wine -- he springs.

Yet even as the narrative releases one tension, it starts to build another, then surprises us again and then again. Structurally, Saturday is a tightly wound tour de force of several strands -- a Hitchcockian thriller, an allegory of the post-9/11 world, the portrait of a very attractive family, and a meditation on the fragility of life and all that we most value.

The high concept of the novel is simple and classic: Here is one day in a man's life, in this case that of 48-year-old neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. The book opens with Henry awaking from uneasy sleep at 3 a.m. on Saturday morning, Feb. 15, 2003, just in time to watch a burning airplane descend from the night sky onto London. Is it a terrorist attack?

From this dramatic overture Saturday pauses to tell us about Henry, a workaholic doctor, a husband who passionately loves his wife (the attorney for a big newspaper), a father who ungrudgingly admires his blues-musician son and worries about his poet daughter's free-spirited ways. Clearly, the Perownes represent the very flower of Western civilization -- decent, thoughtful, productive, cultivated, deeply, fundamentally good. And yet. It is 18 months after the Twin Towers. Are such humane values enough to safeguard them in a world in which one can never know, hardly even guess, from where the blow will fall?

Despite global uncertainties and stresses, most people's daily routines still tend to go steadily on. Perowne talks in the kitchen over coffee with his son, plans a family dinner party, drives to his gym for the weekly game of squash, gets into a minor traffic accident en route. Later in the day he visits his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's and resides in a nursing home, stops by a club to hear his son's newest song, recollects from time to time summers in France when the family visited his father-in-law, the famous poet John Grammaticus (think Robert Graves, with a touch of Ezra Pound). Soon enough, though, the good doctor is back home, preparing seafood chowder, setting out the cheese, awaiting the return for dinner of those he loves most.

Almost an ordinary Saturday then. In London, however, millions have converged for a march against the impending war with Iraq. News of the demonstration and of that burning aircraft keeps interrupting Henry's thoughts. He worries about "martyrdom attacks," the Middle East, the future after 9/11.

"Perowne held for a while to the idea that it was all an aberration, that the world would surely calm down and soon be otherwise, that solutions were possible, that reason, being a powerful tool, was irresistible, the only way out; or that like any other crisis, this one would fade soon, and make way for the next, going the way of the Falklands and Bosnia, Biafra and Chernobyl. But lately, this is looking optimistic. Against his own inclination, he's adapting, the way patients eventually do to their sudden loss of sight or use of their limbs. No going back. The nineties are looking like an innocent decade, and who would have thought that at the time? Now we breathe a different air. He bought Fred Halliday's book and read in the opening pages what looked like a conclusion and a curse: the New York attacks precipitated a global crisis that would, if we were lucky, take a hundred years to resolve. If we were lucky. Henry's lifetime, and all of Theo's and Daisy's. And their children's lifetime too. A Hundred Years' War."

The surgeon also remembers an Iraqi patient who shocked him with some of the casual horrors of Saddam Hussein's regime. So Henry supports the proposed invasion. It will bring an end to an obvious evil. As for radical Islamists, he "takes the conventional view -- the pursuit of utopia ends up licensing every form of excess, all ruthless means of its realisation. If everyone is sure to end up happy forever, what crime can it be to slaughter a million or two now?"

Once such heartlessness might have been the logic of 19th-century philosophers or of foreign nihilists lying on unmade beds in cheap hotels, but now danger and sudden death can lurk quite nearby. When Perowne leaves his lovely home to attend to his Saturday round of pleasures and tasks, he walks through a city square where addicts and adulterers, drunks and suicides, gather to talk or shout or cry quietly on the benches. "Emerging from small rooms in council flats or terraced houses, and from cramped side streets, into a wider view of generous sky and a tall stand of plane trees on the green, of space and growth, people remember their essential needs and how they're not being met."

As Henry will later learn, "a man who believes he has no future" is able to act "free of consequences." On his way to the mews where he garages his car, the uneasy Perowne daydreams of "how restful it must once have been, in another age, to be prosperous and believe that an all-knowing supernatural force had allotted people to their stations in life. And not see how the belief served your own prosperity -- a form of anosognosia, a useful psychiatric term for a lack of awareness of one's own condition." Soon we realize that the loss of faith and the zealotry of faith are ringing through this novel like a bell tolling.

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