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Action-packed! Romantic! Gripping! . . . and introspective?
on June 9, 2006
Taking us through one day of Henry Perowne's life must, in less than 300 pages, necessarily result in an "action packed" story. Opening with Henry's discovery of a fiery jet crossing the sky in the early hours, we follow his busy day of surgery, auto smash, family relations and musings on his life. McEwan's story is intense. It could be no other way, given the complexity of Henry's life. The author, however, keeps tight control over the narrative relieving the reader of "interpreting" events. This is far from "escapist" fiction, and the reader is kept attentive to meanings and values. McEwan contrives nothing and the reader will have few questions or worries about plausibility. A brilliant work about real people.
A serious professional, Henry's "relaxation" is an intense squash game with his anesthetist. He's approaching the big "five-oh", time when any reflective man will look back on his achievements and disappointments. Henry seems to have few of the latter. His daughter is a poet about to be published. Naturally, with her living in Paris, he worries about her private life. Laced with erotica, her poetry seems to impart much. Perhaps more than Henry wants to hear. Having a daughter is an effective way to age a man. Daisy's intelligent and deeply committed. On this Saturday, she's committed to blocking the Bush-Blair crusade in Iraq. A great march will take place, and Daisy expects her father to participate. His demurral shocks her and McEwan provides a charged confrontation - the "generation gap" is still with us.
Whatever Henry might have wished about attending the march is circumvented by a light road accident. A car brushes his, and he faces a trio of London street toughs. Their leader, "Baxter", is a complex character. His opening line to Henry is priceless. The author effectively summarises the thug's character in a single sentence. Obviously educated, Baxter suffers from a genetic neurological disease, Huntington's chorea. Spotting this immediately, Henry diagnoses the ailment, offering therapy. The exchange leads to a string of multi-level encounters between Henry and Baxter. Henry's values are challenged in many ways by Baxter, whose own values must shift as they interact. The balance is exquisite as Henry and Baxter strive to maneuver each other through a spectrum of the two men's shifting needs. McEwan maintains this equilibrium with adroit finesse. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would be merely a clash of wills or a formulaic "good versus evil" scenario. McEwan effectively avoids such simplistic insults to the reader, and we can only applaud him for his skills.
Although shunted to justifiably minor roles, the remainder of Henry's family orbit about him, plainly visible. Each shines with their own level of brilliance. Henry's father in law, John Grammaticus, is a poet, thus Daisy's mentor. Theo, a teen-aged son, is caught up in blues music. In most fiction this would lead to friction, given the contrasting worlds, but father and son evince only mutual respect. Henry's mother, suffers advanced dementia, residing in a home. The great luminary in Henry's family is his wife Rosalind. A lawyer, she has her own professional realm. Henry loves her ardently. In yet another break with formula, Henry is given no amorous distractions neither among his hospital colleagues nor elsewhere. All the romance centres on Rosalind, with neither erosion nor regret. It's to McEwan's credit that he avoids this stereotype trap.
Rather unuexpectedly for fiction, Charles Darwin's famous aphorism, "There is a grandeur to this view of life" appears. It's a key statement in this story. Henry's view of life is grand, and based on solid reasoning. His scientific background forces that approach, and leaves more emotional responses to issues beyond his ken. Daisy never comprehends why Henry won't protest the crusade, but his knowledge exceeds hers and his values run deeper. Should he explain his position in better detail? Would she have accepted his argument? Growing up is hard to do, but watching it happen can be worse. Henry's "view of life" reaches beyond Daisy's, reinforcing the distress by her incomprehension.
With the many aspects of life this book offers, presented with vivid clarity and stirring insights, McEwan may well have launched a new "wave" in fiction. The reality underlying the story and its characters may provide an example for others to follow. They will, however, have to learn to work. McEwan spent two years learning what a neurosurgeon does. How many novelists will undertake, or endure, such an apprenticeship? This could have been a work of journalism. Instead, it's a brilliant story for all to enjoy. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]