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Novelist McEwan, Throwing Himself Into His Work

By Thomas Wagner
Associated Press
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page D04

LONDON -- When Ian McEwan sat down to write his new novel, he faced two obvious challenges: living up to "Atonement," his runaway bestseller, and using fiction to somehow capture the world's anxieties in the aftermath of 9/11 and the buildup to the Iraq invasion.

But he also was tired of being characterized as the bad boy of literary fiction, an author whose complex, page-turning explorations of tragic characters reflected the low points of his own life.

Ian McEwan's "Saturday" is his most autobiographical work. (Adam Butler -- AP)

So the 56-year-old writer took several unusual steps with "Saturday" that may surprise his fans. His new novel is the most autobiographical he has ever written -- a complex mix of the real and the imagined, right down to a setting and characters that mirror his own life.

McEwan is famous for in-depth character portrayals and heady plots of murder, sadomasochism and incest. But in "Saturday," he follows neurosurgeon Henry Perowne for one day, and Perowne's problems begin with a fender bender.

"Saturday," which will be published in the United States on Tuesday, has received rave reviews from both critics and other writers since going on sale in Britain last month.

"What a stunningly successful tour de force," author Kurt Vonnegut said. "Ian McEwan, no stranger, God knows, to successes with his brains and language, this time assumes not only the persona but the knowledge of a brilliant neurosurgeon, who makes scientific interpretations of the responses of his and others' nervous systems to sometimes horrendous events in a single day."

"Saturday" is about a happily married man who works hard, loves his wife and is proud of his two grown-up children, one a promising poet and the other a talented blues musician.

The book, part of which was recently published as a short story in the New Yorker, follows the neurosurgeon around on Feb. 15, 2003, the day of a gigantic demonstration in London against the impending preemptive strike by U.S. and British forces against Saddam Hussein. While heading to play squash, Perowne has a minor car accident with Baxter, a street thug who attacks, then stalks the doctor.

The confrontations leave Perowne juggling his personal life and the Baxter crisis in a world destabilized by 9/11 and the impending war. At one point, the doctor has a bitter argument with his daughter about whether a war in Iraq would be justified.

The book is filled with autobiographical material.

Like Perowne's home, McEwan's is located in a city square of lavish houses and beautiful trees in the shadow of BT Tower, a London landmark. Like the author's mother, Lily, the hero's mother suffers from Alzheimer's disease. Perowne's wife, Rosalind, works for a daily newspaper in London, as does the author's wife, Annalena McAfee. And McEwan's two children, Will, 21, and Greg, 18, are both becoming independent, just like Perowne's.

The book is so topical that it mentions public figures such as U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix and the original "shoe bomber," Richard Reid, and contains a humorous scene featuring Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Critics have often tried to trace elements of McEwan's earlier fiction to his past.

Born in Aldershot, a town south of London, the author was the son of a British army soldier from Glasgow, Scotland, and spent his early childhood living at military stations in Singapore and Libya. When he was 11, he was sent to a boarding school in England, where he was bored and lonely.

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