Ian McEwan is a very successful novelist, but he hasn't let it go to his head. "Most of humanity gets by without reading novels or poetry," he says evenly, stretching out his long frame on a sofa in his London town house. "And no one would deny the richness of their thoughts." Most of humanity probably won't read his new novel, Saturday (Doubleday; 289 pages), which arrives in stores next week. But the sizable part that does will gain definite advantages in the richness of its thinking about brain surgery, the war in Iraq, the psychic burden of life after Sept. 11 and how it feels to be sucker-punched by an excitable creep.
For the part of humanity that reads--that's still a goodly chunk, by the way--McEwan's new book is a major event. His last one, the bleakly magnificent Atonement, put him in the front rank of English-language novelists and became an international best seller--in the U.S. alone, there are 750,000 copies in print. The story of a young girl with a powerful imagination and of the terrible consequences that occur when it's misused, it was a nuanced psychological study, a powerful war drama and, finally, by way of a brisk twist at the end, a devastating moral tale.
Could Saturday hope to be its equal? McEwan doesn't try to imitate his past success. What his new book does is proceed serenely into very different territory, where the most secure existence is ringed by sinister possibilities--an enduring theme with McEwan and, these days, a good metaphor for the world post-9/11.
Saturday takes place on a single day, Feb. 15, 2003, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have filled the streets of London to protest the impending war in Iraq. Henry Perowne, the central character, is a prosperous and contented neurosurgeon. But his happiness is infringed by a persistent, low-intensity fear of a terrorist attack. The pros and cons of the Iraq invasion are among McEwan's concerns here; the son of a career officer in the British army, he says he was more opposed to the war than Perowne. "But I gave him my ambivalence about it."
But McEwan also has much wider matters in mind, like happiness, family and work in a world in which life is a brief interval before the extinction of death. "I don't believe in God," McEwan explains softly. "But the world is just as warm, as rich, if not warmer and richer, when seen without a religious point of view." And just as menacing. While driving to his regular squash game, thinking of the dinner he will cook that night to celebrate the return of his grown daughter from France, Perowne has a small collision. The other car is driven by a minor thug named Baxter, one of those twitchy characters a writer summons up to give a face to all the foul energies at large in the world. Before the day is over, Baxter and Perowne will cross paths again. It won't be pretty.