I’ve written before about McEwan’s books. I think he’s a brilliant writer, though I don’t much like his characters; they seem cold and impersonal to me. In this book, unfortunately, they also seemed completely unreal. I simply did not believe that such people existed, making the story an intellectual exercise rather than a world I could enter.
The action all takes place in London on a single day, a Saturday. Henry Perowne wakes early to see a burning plane heading into Heathrow, a sight which fans his post-9/11 fears. It is the day of a huge march to protest the Iraq War, but the march is simply an inconvenience for Perowne as he runs his errands, plays squash, and prepares for a family reunion dinner at his luxurious London home. However, the march is partially responsible for his being in a minor accident, a road rage encounter that drives the rest of the story.
Perowne is a busy, successful neurosurgeon who still has oodles of time to cook for his family and attend the activities of his fabulously talented, brilliant, successful and never surly adolescent and post-adolescent children. Through decades of marriage, he has never once desired any woman but his wife, a brilliant and successful lawyer, and they have lovely sex not once but twice on this particular day. You see the difficulty.
I understand that McEwan wanted this family to stand in for the privileged west, fattened on the world’s resources. He points out how we take luxuries such as grapes in winter and running hot water for granted, which of course is true. Yet, as one member of my book club remarked, the nails of the story's structure are too obvious. Some reviewers have noted that Perowne’s political views reflect those of McEwan himself expressed in various articles. Without arguing one way or the other about the politics of protest marches and the war in Iraq, I’ll just say that this book is a good example of the danger of setting out to write a political treatise in the form of a novel.
Where McEwan does succeed, in my opinion, is in capturing a certain mindset common today. There’s the compulsion to listen to news stories while not trusting their source. “He suspects he's becoming a dupe, the willing, febrile consumer of news fodder.” There’s the way people argue fiercely over such things as the war when they have no first-hand information on which to base their opinions. And of course there's the free-floating anxiety and the aggression that comes out in road rage, sports, and even casual conversation. I loved his notion that “A race of extraterrestrial grown-ups is needed to set right the general disorder, then put everyone to bed for an early night.”
However, I don’t think this mindset is the result of 9/11. It started long before. And I don’t see how the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon are all that different from other terrorist attacks—from a bomb in a London market, a plane brought down in Lockerbie, sarin gas in a subway in Tokyo, or a bomb on a Spanish train—except that they happened in the U.S. and on television. Therefore, for me at least, the basis of this story—that the world changed irrevocably and uniquely on that September morning—simply doesn't hold.