Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Day in the Life

by Ian McEwan

I suspect that we all have days that stand out sharply in our memory, days of which we can recall every last detail - conversations that we had, what we were wearing, the weather - everything takes on significance when the day turns out to be one that changes life forever. McEwan writes evocatively about one such day in the life of his protagonist, Henry Perowne. The book is so well done, with threads of the day appearing, disappearing, and reappearing again - not just events themselves, but Perowne's own moods, thoughts, and feelings. McEwan traces these subtle evolutions so skillfully that we practically live them with Perowne.

At first I was not sure if I could deal with the pacing of a book that is confined to a single 24-hour period. In much the same way, I have never been interested in watching the television show 24, although many people really like it. In any case, I did have to sort of get in the mode of McEwan's rhythm, and I did feel a sense of urgency to read it speedily. There was a sense that the immediacy with which the book is written would be lacking if I took a week to read a one day book. I hope that makes sense.

Saturday is set in London in 2003, just before the beginning of the Iraq war. One of the devices that McEwan uses to weave the oncoming war into the story (and the accompanying fear and malaise of its characters) is to have a huge anti-war protest march taking place in the neighborhood where the Perowne family lives. Although they are not marching themselves, their day is punctuated and even disrupted along the way by closed streets, noise, and television reports. Even though the family is trying to have a "normal" Saturday, the background march seeps into their consciousness and they are forced to confront their own opinions about the war.

The day's significance is magnified towards the end of the book, when a previously minor character in the story takes an ugly turn that leads to terror and nearly to tragedy. The buildup to this event is present in the preceding pages, but McEwan still manages to take the reader by surprise. The surprise continues in a lovely way after the danger has passed - Henry Perowne discovers within himself a way to love his enemy, and find his own outlook transformed in the process. The ending reminds us in a non-preachy way about the difficulty - and also the tremendous power - of compassion and forgiveness.

McEwan is just a magnificent writer. This book made me think about days that are etched in my mind in such sharp detail - 9/11 comes immediately to my mind, as well as my first date with the man who is now my husband, and the births of my two sons. What are these days for you? What was important about them and what details do you still remember? Feel free to discuss.

Reverent Reader


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