by Ian McEwan
I have read a few of McEwan’s books, and have had a pretty variable response to them. This one kept me so thoroughly hooked (staying up until 1 a.m. to finish it) and had such masterful language that it is definitely my favourite so far (oh, except maybe A Child in Time, which was heartbreakingly beautiful).
The story is about one particular Saturday, a day that is both ordinary and extraordinary for main character Henry, a brain surgeon in a wealthy part of London. McEwan goes into a lot of detail in this book, not something I remember particularly of his previous writing, so I suppose maybe it’s intended as a reflection of Henry’s precise nature. There are pages and pages detailing medical procedures, for example, both adding authority to the story and revealing how very much the job is a part of who Henry is.
Henry wakes early, unable to sleep, and by chance sees a plane burst into flames from his bedroom window. This is how his Saturday begins. It goes on to include a squash game, a minor car crash, food shopping, a family reunion and his observation of the Don’t Invade Iraq protest march. Yes, it’s set on that particular Saturday.
It’s an interesting set-up and is executed extremely well. The impending Iraq invasion pervades the whole day. Henry can’t get it out of his mind. He is completely torn on the subject. Not ambivalent – he definitely cares – but he is honestly not sure whether it’s the right thing to do. He’s not concerned about WMDs but he has met Iraqi intellectuals who tell awful tales of Saddam Hussein’s regime, tales that make him think that removing such a man from power could only be a good thing. But Henry’s an intelligent, astute enough man to know that it’s not that simple. For one thing, war is always to be avoided. There’s also the question of what happens next – does the UK suffer from reprisals? Does Iraq get another terrible dictator who inflicts unspeakable crimes on his own people? Does the US try to rule Iraq, causing a much bigger, longer-drawn-out war? Does this give us licence to go invade every other country with a despotic leader who we think is doing bad things?
I think this is part of why I liked the book so much. I relate very strongly to this in Henry. It’s easy to say in hindsight whether something was good or bad, whether it was done well or badly. But at the time I was so uncertain. A lot of my friends went on that protest march through London and a few people were surprised that I didn’t. I’m a pacifist – I could never be for war – but there was a strong argument for removing Saddam from power. It would be wonderful if this sort of thing could be managed through the International Court of Justice, but it’s never that simple.
But back to the book…Henry is in some ways an irritating, smug, well-to-do character who is so far removed from war zones and human rights violations that it could have been hard to care about what he thinks. He certainly has money, a comfortable lifestyle, a loving wife and children, a job he thrives on. His difficulty relating to his creatively minded children could have been clichéd. At a party I might not be inclined to speak to him. But McEwan manages to both find the humanity of this man but also write his story in a way that does not ask you to care. In a way, the whole point is how comfortably middle class Henry is because he epitomises the capitalist consumer, he is the person Al Quaeda despises and wages hate campaigns against. And he is very close in type to the people who actually made the decision about whether or not to go to war. You imagine that he was probably classmates at public school and later university with key cabinet members.
In his favour, Henry is a thinking man and McEwan gives him a believably erudite turn of phrase. For instance, when considering his difficulty with reading poetry, his thoughts run:
“…it cost him an effort of an unaccustomed sort. Even a first line can produce a tightness behind his eyes. Novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time…But to do its noticing and judges, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill like drystone walling or trout tickling.”
(Incidentally, I’m not sure if I somehow had an American edition but I did get a little annoyed that this well bred Englishman was using American terms like “airplane” and “movie” rather than the British English equivalents, but that’s the sub-editor in me coming out.)
This was a very well executed novel that held me in its thrall and I am very grateful to Kath of [Insert suitably snappy title here…] for recommending it.
First published 2005 by Jonathan Cape