By the Book

An Impending Sense of Doom – Saturday by Ian McEwan

Disaster will strike in Ian McEwan's novel Saturday. In it, he shows it's up to us to decide how we'll cope with our fears.

Have you ever woken up feeling like disaster would strike on that very day? I have. In fact, there are times when I hardly dare open my eyes in the morning because the prospects of anything good happening are pretty slim. When I read Ian McEwan’s Saturday, I felt that same sense of doom on every page, and I wondered whether my spirits would eventually be lifted. Want to know if they were? Read on!

Saturday follows middle-aged London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, who seems to have the perfect life – he loves his work, he’s loved by his colleagues, he’s still in love with his beautiful wife, and his two children, guitarist Theo and poet Daisy, are successful artists, and his mother is still alive, although she suffers from dementia – as he lives through Saturday 15 February 2003. He wakes up early in the morning and feels uneasy as he sees a fireball, which later turns out to be a burning plane, appear in the sky. It is the day of a large protests against the war in Iraq, it is the day of playing a friendly game of squash, of getting into a fight with a thug called Baxter, and of reuniting with his entire family for the first time in a long while. And in the evening, all events come together.

What do we turn to when we’re afraid? Do we trust in science, or do we need something that gives life meaning? This seems to be one of the biggest questions in Saturday. Perowne has always believed in science, and this notion is strengthened when he diagnoses Baxter with Huntington’s disease, and tells him there might be a scientific breakthrough. Baxter then decides not to beat Perowne, and it seems that he, too, puts his faith in science. Perowne’s children, on the other hand, are artists, and they feel it is art that can change the world.

So many things can happen in one single day. Saturday takes place after the 9/11 attacks, an event that Perowne is unable to shake off. He keeps thinking about how London might be the next venue of a terrorist attack (and it was, in 2005, not that long after this novel was published), and how his life might change within seconds. The protests only heighten his sense that the world might be ending. However, it is not only events that take place on a grand scale that worry Perowne; indeed, even his squash match takes on epic proportions, and his life seems, somehow, to depend on a positive outcome.

But it is the encounter with Baxter, who manages to enter his house uninvited and threatens to rape his daughter, which truly makes Perowne believe his life, and his family’s. And then the unimaginable happens: Daisy, who is about to be raped by Baxter, recites the Romantic poem Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold. And at that moment, Baxter changes. He is moved to tears, and leaves Daisy alone. Oh, if only this could really happen – if everything that bothered us, if every single feeling of dread could be banished from our frightened hearts by the beauty of art.

Oh, if only! I don’t seem to truly believe this could happen, do I? Many reviewers agree: when I was doing research for Saturday, I noticed how most of the novel was praised, but the ending, this one ending, about Baxter being moved by a poem, was considered ridiculous, even thrashy; for how could poetry save the world? And that’s interesting, I think. Because somehow we trust science unconditionally, while nobody really believes in the healing powers of art.

So is Saturday a bad book because it shows us how we desperately want our spirits to be lifted by literature? Are all these reviewers right, because, as one exceptionally critical writer puts it, “are we in the West so shaken in our sense of ourselves and our culture, are we so disablingly terrified in the face of the various fanaticisms which threaten us, that we can allow ourselves to be persuaded and comforted by such a self-satisfied and, in many ways, ridiculous novel as this?” In other words, are we so afraid that we turn to books that show us how beautiful everything could be, and we desperately want to believe in them? Maybe.

I loved Saturday. But then, I love books, and I know how powerful they can be. Whenever I feel particularly overwhelmed by everything that goes on in my life, and I am scared that everything will come crashing down, I read. I read beautiful books, and I read depressing books. I don’t care, really. But I want to believe they can change the world for the better – and when I read books like this one, I do. Truly.

What did you think of Saturday? Do you think the arts can save the world, or are you feeling a bit more sceptical? Do you think we need to choose between science and art, or can you put your faith in both? Did you ever feel like your life was changed in a single day? And what did you do? Please let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!

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