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.