I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

A Shameless Book Review


I always get nervous when I come across a book in which the story takes place over a single day; often it means the author will have stretched things out to fill up the pages, with lovely strolls down side paths, into dense gardens, around difficult to describe bushes, into the murky waters of a fountain we don't care about. You get my point.

This was the sensation I had when I started reading Ian McEwan's Saturday, which opens with a bedroom scene, the main character waking up, musing about his lot. Here's the opening line:

"Some hours before dawn Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes to find himself already in motion, pushing back the covers from a sitting position, and then rising to his feet."

I instantly had memories of a writing class I once attended. "Don't ever ever ever begin your novel with the main character in bed waking up!" bellowed the tutor. "It's ugly and it's boring and it will turn the reader off!" I'm not sure if he was right, but it means that I now can't judge those kinds of opening lines objectively. Ugly and boring comes to mind, even if they are not the real feelings I have. Therefore, Saturday didn't start well for me.

I dreaded the thought that I was going to be taken through the day to day stuff of someone I wouldn't care about - a wealthy doctor in London - and it would be too focused on his internal angst, heavy questions about how on earth can we fit into a post-September the 11th world. A writer who is not sure of his ability would probably never attempt this. The result could be catastrophic. McEwan must be sure of his abilities, and this is where he has some success.

The novel slowly pulls you in, with a quiet, unsettling tone. The doctor's world is turned upside down after an encounter in the street with a road rage thug. There is suspense, anxiety, but not too much pondering. It is inevitable that McEwan has to take a few strolls down some peripheral gardens - a squash game that goes into too much detail and goes on for too many pages; the ins and outs of medical adventure inside the heads of several patients; the curiosities of jazz music that only a fan would appreciate. Don't forgt this is McEwan though, and so he manages to pull the plane up at the last minute, just when you think you are going to crash into the mountains and you will slam the book shut. This is what he is good at. He can keep pulling you along, even if you get restless with his playfulness, his desire to explore the language, show off his wordsmith skills. Anybody else would have failed after 50 pages.

The book only runs to 279 pages - thank goodness, because one day spread out over any more could become tedious - and there is a plot and a climax worth waiting for. You do close the book asking questions, feeling a prickle on your skin, understanding what it is that makes us all feel nervous about the fragility of our lives. It is a nice meditation on our post-twin towers uneasiness. For me, it is not one of McEwan's best, but it is definitely something worth reading.

12 comments:

cate sweeney said...

Hi Shamus
Do you mind me calling you that? Say if so...
Well funnily enough I am reading Saturday at the moment too, and finding it a bit hard to get past the first chapter, but I will persevere now I've read this. I normally love Ian McEwan, thought Atonement was brilliant, so I will carry on, don't feel that sympathetic towards maind character though, but maybe that's the point.

Shameless said...

Hi Cate,
It sounds as though you're going through what I went through when I started this, but things do pick up, as I say in the review. I prefer the Irish spelling of Shamus, by the way, just to put a twinkle in my eye! How are things with your new book? Are the new environs making a difference?

Shameless said...

By the way, Cate, there doesn't appear to be an option to leave comments on your blog. Is that on purpose?

Jessica Schneider said...

I don't think much of McEwan. He's rather forgettable. I thought Atonement was very, very dull, so I don't think I'll be reading this. But in his defense, whatever prof said for you not to begin with a character waking up in the morning, I just wonder, did that prof not ever hear of The Metamorphosis?

Shameless said...

Welcome Jessica,
There's an awful lot I never took away from writing class - we have probably all had that experience. You learn pretty quickly that there are basically no rules about what works in fiction. Can we exchange links. Your blog looks great, and I love all the photos and poems.

Thomas said...

Your writing instructor's advice reminded me of a post I'd written about the effect of such advice or "rules" on people's reading habits:

Shameless said...

I've just read your post on "the hook" and think there is a lot to think about there. (I invite others to have a read of this). It's better to open a book with no expectations and let it flow over you, without all the baggage of previous writing or reading experiences. I try to do this in all aspects of my life. Writing advice is never set in cement, and I've rejected lots of it and taken on board some I believe in.
It's good to see you back doing regular posts, Thomas. I'd lost you there for a bit ... and I see you've changed the look of the blog. What do the skulls represent, by the way?

Thomas said...

They don't really represent anything. I took the picture this summer at Meteora (there's a post about that further down).

Or maybe I thought a memento mori would be properly melancholy.

cate sweeney said...

Hi Shamus
I'm still struggling with Ian McEwan, ten pages of a squash game guive me a break,
Don't know what happened to my comments but seems OK again now!
Cate

Shameless said...

Hi Cate,
I think I skipped the squash game ... probably because in real life it doesn't interest me. I wonder if McEwan ever asked himself whether it would work, and whether people would just flick through it.

Jessica Schneider said...

Hi Shameless-

(Please ignore my little birdie here- ha ha).

I will link up to you. Sorry it took so long for me to respond. Duh. I'm not good with comments.

I agree with what you say about the rules of ficiton. A great writer will know how to break them, and that Kafka did.

Talk to you soon,

-JS

Shameless said...

Consider yourself linked-to Jessica! It's a pleasure. I love the photo, by the way. In some places in the world, there's a more spiritual meaning!