Sunday, September 04, 2005

His Saturday - My Sunday

My review of Saturday by Ian McEwan in Starmag today.
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IT’S Saturday, Feb 15, 2003.The Iraq invasion is imminent, and the largest demonstration in British history has more than a million people converging on central London.

It is also Henry Perowne’s day off, and the neurosurgeon has a full schedule of activities planned: a game of squash with a colleague; a trip to the fishmonger; a visit to his mother in a nursing home (the most poignant scene in the book); then on to his son’s blues gig, before finally coming home to cook for a reunion dinner. As he goes about his routine, the reader is privy to his thoughts, memories and musings in scenes that are beautifully observed.

Anyone who knows McEwan’s writing will appreciate that he makes a specialty of shattering everyday normality, and violent incident eventually smashes into the novel. A minor car accident leads to an unpleasant confrontation with the thuggish Baxter (whom Henry quickly realises has the symptoms of the degenerative disease Huntington’s Chorea). Baxter resurfaces later in the novel to hold Henry’s family captive.

McEwan’s greatest achievement in the novel is the atmosphere of fear he creates from the first few pages, when Henry spots a plane on fire from his bedroom window in the small hours of the morning and imagines a terrorist attack. This is after all the new age of anxiety, post 9/11. Henry also fears “the city’s poor, the drug-addicted, the downright bad”; despite an elaborate home security system, he realises nothing keeps you safe. Later events bear him out.

The difficulty of making a moral choice is a reoccurring theme here. Henry’s conversation with his daughter Daisy about the morality of the war must have been repeated in kitchens up and down the country, and in much the same words. Henry realises the war is “all about outcomes and no one knows what they’ll be”, so there is little point in making a stand. He knows about Saddam’s excesses from one of his patients, an Iraqi professor who has been systematically tortured. (Incidentally, McEwan actually gives Tony Blair a walk-on part in one of the cleverest moments of the novel.)

McEwan as social commentator is spot on, but McEwan as storyteller is a different matter. There are times in the novel when the reader’s credulity is stretched almost to breaking point.

Henry’s long cogitations in moments of crisis, coupled with generous doses of medical jargon, is unintentionally laughable. As Baxter lunges at him after the car accident, the thought running through Henry’s mind is: “This is bound to imply the diminished presence of two enzymes in the striatum and lateral palladium – glutamic acid decarboxylase and choline acetyltransferase.”

Who needs to parody McEwan when he is more than capable of doing it himself? (Be warned: this is not a novel that wears its research lightly, and you will feel as if you’ve taken a crash course in brain surgery by the end!)

The scene in which the family is held hostage seems awkwardly ill-fitting with dialogue that could have been lifted from a TV drama. And is it really credible that a poem (a recitation of Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold) could bring about a total change of heart in the knife-wielding Baxter? Literature lovers would be delighted to think so.

The real pleasure of Saturday, though, is in the quality of writing and level of intellectual engagement the novel offers. This is fiction with its finger on the pulse of the times, and not surprisingly, it is currently odds on favourite to win this year’s Booker prize.

S'difficult, y'know, trying to cram everything you think and feel about a book into the 500-600 words of a review. I had pages and pages of notes and quotations and would love, just love to sit down over coffee with someone and chat at length about this book, because I loved its complexity and intelligence.

Will Saturday appeal to Malaysian readers? Only those who into serious literary fiction and appreciate style more than plot. Anyone looking for an easy read with a racy storyline won't get through this.

There's also a review of another of the Booker longlisted books The Accidental by Ali Smith by Lee Tsi Ling on the same page as mine. Funny, I never read reviews until after I've read a book because I want to know what I think first before anyone esle does! But afterwards, I always dig the reviews out to see how far we agree or don't. I don't even read the blurb on the back of books! A journey through a book is always a very personal thing and I don't want to be influenced.

Kinokuniya is offering 30% off all the books on the Booker longlist with the voucher next to my review. I must go out and buy some extra copies of the paper because I want several of the books for myself, and pretty well all of them for the British Council.

Daphne Lee's article on Penguin Books is also worth a read. (And hey, you can get 20% off the tiny Pocket Penguins if you flash the article at the folks at Times!) She quotes Mike Bryan, international sales and marketing director for Penguin United Kingdom as saying:
“Penguin India, of course, publishes many great Indian authors, and our office in China is signing up the new wave of Chinese authors. It would be great to get more Singaporean and Malaysian authors in print.


Allan Koay 郭少樺 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Allan Koay 郭少樺 said...

bibliobibuli said...

Thanks for the link, Visitor. I never know if I can bear tos ee a film of a book i've truly loved or not ... Another topic for an entry!!

Allan Koay 郭少樺 said...

from the sound of it, Larry McMurtry and Ang Lee have understood the story very well and have kept very faithful to the essence of it. i am confident of it.

they said they've thrown in all the elements of a good love story, regardless of sexual orientation.

you really cant go wrong with Ang Lee. he's not made a bad film yet. i like even Hulk.

bibliobibuli said...

True... and Larry McMurty should also get it right ...

Anonymous said...


You did wonderfully despite the word limit. Made me want to ge read the book. I'll go get it at Kinos I guess - then I'll do the analysis over coffee with you. But hey, are we not being unfaithful to our book club?
Actually another book I'd love to tear apart (because I loved it) is The Impressionist. Still pondering over whether I should do a review. It is already a few years old.


bibliobibuli said...

Animah - Saturday is not a book I'd recommend for the book club - I thibnk most of the group would struggle and some would say where's the story, and I don't think they'd relate to it as much as we would having lived in Britain and knowing London. There are other books on the longlist that I know that folks here will like better. if you want to borrow Saturday, I can lend it to you when I see you (next Monday?).

As for The Impressionist - hey - that's the book we're doing that soon - it's wonderful!!! And Hari Kunzru is coming to KL sometime soon so we will hopefully be able to meet him and ask him about it.