When love and terror meet

SATURDAY

By Ian McEwan

Nina A. Talese/Doubleday, $26, 287 pages

Well before dawn on Feb. 15, 2003, Henry Perowne, the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s ninth novel “Saturday,” finds himself staring out of his bedroom window at something he can’t quite discern, a “fire in the sky” that he at first believes to be a distant comet “with its familiar bright core trailing its fiery envelope.” However, it does not take long for Henry to notice that the burning object is accompanied by a low rumbling, gentle thunder that is “gathering in volume.” The thought that it is nearer to his world than he first believed heralds an unease with which he begins his day. “Something is about to give.”

Like the many novels (“Atonement,” “Amsterdam,” “The Cement Garden”) that have secured Mr. McEwan a loyal following, “Saturday” capitalizes on the author’s skill at drawing readers into the suspense of his fictive world. But here, more than in any of his previous books, real events and real apprehensions mingle with Mr. McEwan’s fiction.

Like anyone reading this book, Henry knows all too well what a burning plane near an urban center suggests, and acting as a narrator to his own story, he puts things into perspective this way: “It’s already almost eighteen months since half the planet watched, and watched again the unseen captives driven through the sky to the slaughter, at which time there gathered round the innocent silhouette of any plane a novel association. Everyone agrees, airliners look different in the sky these days.”

Under ordinary circumstances, Henry is not a man inclined to fright. He is a neurosurgeon with a thriving medical practice, a wife he adores, two nearly grown children and a robust constitution. On this day he plans a round at the squash court, a dinner for his family (that he will prepare) geared to celebrate a visit from his daughter who has just published her first book of poetry. For London, it will be a different day, one in which thousands of marchers will descend upon its streets to protest the looming war in Iraq.

For Mr. McEwan, who has assembled these elements it will be a different day still, one that leads readers along a breathtaking narrative that is uncommonly strong and graceful. Rarely does one encounter writing this good and readers hoping to encounter once more the sturdy, elegant writing of the author’s previous books will not be disappointed.

Like “Ulysses,” and “Mrs. Dalloway,” the action of the book is framed by events that take place over 24 hours, the backdrop here being a nervous and combustible 21st century London, made only slightly less so by the unfolding news that the burning plane that Henry saw out his window was not part of a terrorist attack after all but a Russian cargo plane with a malfunctioning engine. The plane made a safe landing and no one was hurt, but readers know that this happy ending does not give them license to relax because the heady ride along this brilliant narrative is just getting started, much of which will take place inside of Henry’s good brain.

There is grandeur in this view of life. He wakes or he thinks he does to the sound of her hairdryer and a murmuring voice repeating a phrase, and later after he’s sunk again, he hears the solid clunk of her wardrobe door opening, the vast built-in wardrobe, one of a pair, with automatic lights and intricate interior of lacquered veneer and deep scented recesses … all the while, the plastic blue dolphin, attached by suckers to the mosaic wall in the shower, plays that same phrase, until he begins to sense a religious content as its significance swells — there is grandeur in this view of life, it says, over and again.”

As he wakes into consciousness Henry is aware that the phrase is Darwin’s and came to him from the book he was reading the previous night. From there he is reminded of a poem by Philip Larkin, his daughter’s favorite poet and he recites in his mind its opening verse:

If I were called in/ To construct a religion/ I should make use of water.

Strength of family, faith, near-hallucinatory appreciation of the sensual and beautiful world that surrounds him gets Henry’s day started. And it gets the book started with an appreciation of this man and his family, a likable group that is rich in love, earthly possessions, gifts and insights. Theo, the 18 year old loves music and is well behaved besides. Daisy does not agree with her father’s hawkish stance on the war but adores him anyway. Henry and Rosalind are deeply and faithfully devoted to each other.

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