Anyone for menace?

SATURDAY

BY IAN McEWAN

Jonathan Cape, 17.99

THE IRISH NOVELIST JOHN McGAHERN suggests that people live in days and not in places. Ian McEwan’s latest fiction may prove the theory. Days, whether long, or frustratingly short, often seem familiar - peopled by loved ones, by jaded colleagues, repeated journeys, meal times, chores, the siren-song of tedious TV theme tunes, the taken-for-grantedness of what Ian McEwan’s hero calls "the brief privilege of consciousness" - meaning life.

What makes days resonate, though, is their difference, not their sameness. The Saturday of the title becomes defined by such a uniqueness - while simultaneously being shaped by routine events in the life of its hero, Henry Perowne, the least heroic of protagonists.

It is Saturday 15 February, 2003, the day of mass protest all across London against the impending war in Iraq. Henry is filled with growing unease about the state of the world. He rises from bed at 3:40am to see a transport plane on fire as it struggles towards Heathrow - something dramatic, but not momentous. Henry’s fidelity to his wife Rosalind, a lawyer, and to his family, is unswerving, as is his commitment to his work as a highly respected neurosurgeon. He is happily married and proud of his children: Theo the blues-guitarist, Daisy a promising poet. And so as he stands in pre-dawn gloom at the bedroom window of his mansion in Fitzrovia, viewing a discontented world, he endures a personal burden of guilt at having so much.

His life has a pattern. Stooped yet boyish, unassertive, mild-eyed, in good shape, he takes regular runs in Regent’s Park. And today his Saturday seems mapped out. There is the prospect of his regular weekend squash game with a colleague. He thinks with pleasure, of cooking fish stew for a celebratory evening meal to mark the return of Daisy from Paris, her first book of poems carried with her like a trophy. Henry relishes tiny everyday tics of belonging and reassurance: the sound of the clunk of his wife’s built-in wardrobe, the silky whisper of her petticoat while he dozes. And yet today, "the gently tilting negative pitch" of Henry’s mood takes on the disquiet of much of the nation (despite his suspicion that attacking Saddam may well be right) and he seems to intuit the sinister rush of events to come.

So far, so utterly uneventful. McEwan explores and expands the decencies of Henry’s disposition with consummate skill. A lesser novelist would sink beneath the weight of Henry’s bland goodness. The novel’s problems and those of Henry only begin when our hero chooses to leave the house. There, in the almost deserted streets (controlled by police who have funnelled pedestrians towards the march route), Henry’s Mercedes is in collision - a minor incident - with a beat-up, red BMW, "a vehicle he associates for no good reason with criminality". The BMW’s driver, Baxter, has "a simian air" that threatens Henry’s well-being - as does the demeanour of Baxter’s cronies. But Henry, about to be beaten up, spots Baxter’s "impaired occular fixation", the way he "turns and angles his head to settle the taller man’s (Henry’s) image on his fovea ..." Intrusive jargon, partly justified by the need for verisimilitude, is one thing (though it is increasingly, over-egged to the point of show-offishness by McEwan). Harder to swallow is the coincidence that Baxter is the unfortunate (or in Henry’s case, the fortunate) victim of Huntingdon’s, an exceedingly rare neurological condition. Henry’s insight, it seems, stops Baxter his tracks - making good the doctor’s swift escape.

Paradoxically, Henry’s retreat leaves Baxter humiliated - and subsequent, fleeting glimpses of a cruising red BMW fuel justified unease. Thus, when Baxter reappears in the course of the family’s celebrations, his palpable menace brings an eruption of ugly business and a startling revelation. He and Nige, his gangling sidekick, loom straight out of Pinter, talking like something from The Birthday Party’s lexicon of chilling deadpan patter. Dj vu for the reader and for Henry, whose gut wells with fear for his family’s health.

This scene marks the bringing to life of Saturday’s central theme - which is cause and effect, or the costs of consequence, either intended or accidental. What if Henry had quietly given in to Baxter’s demand for recompense that morning? What if the government hadn’t backed America’s stance on war in Iraq?

Offsetting local and global menace, McEwan invites us to make other parallels - not least between the surgical dissections of the neurologist and the layer by layer revelations of the novelist, so absorbed in probing his character’s hard-wired psyche and knotted skein of emotional threads.

As a free-standing character, Henry Perowne is convincingly conjured in all his complexity: atheistic, devoted to family, to food, Bach, his son Theo’s blues, sport, sex and the joyous rewards of rigorous work. But his stance on war is hedged unconvincingly - the arguments pro and con, sounding pre-rehearsed, and measured not by Henry’s conviction but by his author’s striving for balance. Some fine set-pieces - Henry’s squash match (too long at almost 14 pages); a confrontation between Daisy and her grandfather; Henry’s visit to his dementia-struck mother and the last-gasp face-off with Baxter are done with breathtaking style and brio. Why then (his majestic novel Atonement notwithstanding), does one feel a sense of disappointment with Saturday? It leans too much on the pathos of Baxter’s tragic plight to bring Henry to action and thence to life. And it feels dislocated from everyday life, McEwan’s cool prose proving counter-productive, a triumph of polish over effect.