Ian McEwan is England's best living novelist. Pretty much everyone in England agrees. And although I have read only four of his dozen novels, I'll vote with the mob here --- ATONEMENT blew me away.
How does a book blow you away? Simple. It takes over your life. Slams you into your chair where you sit, hour after hour, devouring it. You wish you didn't have to eat, you despise the ringing phone, you wouldn't mind if you had a catheter. Need to go out? Read in the elevator, on the street. Essentially, life as you have known it stops --- and can't resume until, in some altered state, you reach The End.
ATONEMENT was like that for me. It had a terrific plot engine --- a 13-year-old girl makes a mistake and says something that hurts any number of people and ripples through their lives for decades. Injustice: That theme worked for Dickens, it works here, it will always work. And married to this freight train of a plot is great writing --- McEwan's account of Dunkirk is worth the price of the book --- and a resolution that makes you want to talk back to it.
McEwan is a master writer for lots of reasons. His exactitude. His ability to get inside a character --- all sorts of characters. His willingness to use the conventions of melodrama. And, happily, his understanding of the influence that movies have had on us. As he says, "I've always thought of novels as being importantly a visual medium. We are visual creatures. A good portion of our brain is dedicated to visual processing. It seems to me crucial in any important scene in a novel that the reader has a firm grip of what this looks like."
SATURDAY relies heavily on McEwan's strengths as a visual writer. Because the book is a huge trick --- although it is set, in London, on February 15, 2003, the day of worldwide protest against the upcoming Iraq war, we never see the march. Rather, this is a day in the life of Henry Perowne, a toweringly successful neurosurgeon. His day off, in fact, so we have a chance to see what a satisfied man looks like when he has time to be himself.