Saturday is the ninth novel by revered British author, Ian McEwan. It is also his attempt at a ‘day in the life’ novel, a style popularised by Joyce’s Ulysses. To be honest, I found it a bit of a slog. Getting through it took far longer than I’d care to admit – and it’s not even that long. This is because it’s packed with detail; Saturday’s focus on day-to-day minutiae is nothing short of staggering. Reading Saturday is the written equivalent of trudging along a highway in saturated clothing.
As the title suggests, the events take place on an ordinary Saturday – ordinary if you’re a successful neurosurgeon who has everything he ever wanted. There’s been some criticism levelled at McEwan for his decision to depict a wealthy, well-adjusted family who haven’t any ‘serious’ problems. There are problems, but chances are they won’t be relatable to a large cross-section of readers.
This is a fair criticism to make, but it didn’t bother me one bit. Perhaps you’ll find it an issue if you aren’t empathetic, or if you struggle with suspending disbelief. Henry Perowne’s background is nothing like my own, but I had no problems investing in his journey. As a protagonist, Henry is affable, inoffensive and a well-drawn professional. I was more than happy to follow for the day, listening to him ruminate on England’s social landscape, or on the inner-workings of the human brain. His insights and motivations, which likely mirror McEwan’s own, were on the money. Henry also has a daughter, Daisy, who is his ideological opposite. Hearing these characters play off each other was great.
Henry Perowne’s suspicion of art and politics make him a kind of upper-middle class everyman. His musings are brilliant, but oppressive, because McEwan’s prose is incredibly precise. McEwan renders everyday moments in such a way that you have to kick yourself for failing to notice their obvious beauty, a beauty you feel has somehow always been there. Truly, Saturday is Real Life in its most convincing literary form. But still there’ll be times when you’ll bang your head against the wall wishing that something – anything! – would come along and advance the plot.
In regards to its narrative, Saturday is unquestionably dull. Though it’s book-ended by two high stake scenes, you’ll need perseverance to clear the sagging middle section. Fortunately, my fondness for McEwan’s prose (which is astonishing here: truly ‘top of his game’ stuff) ushered me onward. Patience is advised, though. Had a lesser author attempted this, I might’ve given up at the halfway mark.
Saturday is not a fun read, but I guarantee you’ll have a deep appreciation for it by the time you finish. Like most of McEwan’s oeuvre, it’s powerful and relevant. Just don’t go in expecting the immediacy of some of his earlier work.