Briefly, the book is the story of a single Saturday in the life of Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon and rationalist, on the Saturday in 2003 when 2 million Londoners turned out to protest the upcoming Iraq War. Perowne is a brilliant man, at the height of his career, and he spends the day circling some kind of vaguely defined ill feeling. Gradually, it becomes clear, to both the reader and Perowne, that Perowne might just disagree with the protesters. Unlike almost any other Briton alive, Perowne might support the war. He once treated an Iraqi general who had been imprisoned and tortured by Saddam's regime, so as he puts it, the protesters have gathered to protect "peace and torture." He's not quite on board, and he finds himself worrying and hoping that the US has some kind of plan for this war.
The book, though, is not really and truly about Iraq, although the war and the events of 9/11 hover over the story--just as they did for everyone in those tense days in early 2003, before the first bombs fell. It's more about one man's immersion and reaction to the modern world, to modernism, and in a way, his deep and abiding love for his pluralistic, open and tolerant society.
McEwan is close to the peak of his game in this book. His control is incredible; every sentence, every word and every thought is completely organic and authentic. But I do find myself wondering what it was about Perowne, and this story in general, that drew McEwan. Let's say for argument sake that a novelist only gets to lavish his or her gifts on so many books in their lifetime. What was it about this story that caused McEwan to invest several years of his ridiculous talent?
It's made me wonder, too ... why do I choose to tell the stories that draw me? Why does anyone? It's not good enough to say, "Because I want to sell a book" or "Because I want to get paid." I think there must be a deeper reason, or else the motivation simply won't be there. The core will be hollow.
Ultimately, the question led me back to theme, and I think I'm beginning to understand in a deeper way than ever what it means to begin with theme. I suppose I can answer my own question about McEwan and SATURDAY. I suspect I know what he wanted to say with this book, and it's not simple. It would take a writer of his caliber to pull it off. So what about your book? My book? Sure, we hope they're good, but why did we do it?