While we were in Bermuda I read the latest Ian McEwan novel, Saturday – a ripping yarn and considerable food for thought. On the whole I very much enjoyed it even though I felt there were some ambiguities about character and story.

One of the reasons I was excited about reading it was that I could finally listen to one of the Slate magazine audio book club podcasts and compare my thoughts with those of the Slate reviewers (the Saturday review is here). Little did I know how disappointed I would be! If you’ve already read the book or don’t mind some giveaways, read on…

Firstly, the book club reviewers completely missed (or at least failed to even mention) the analogy of the lead character, Henry Perowne, representing the West, and the mentally disordered bully, Baxter, representing Iraq. Considering that so much of the story comes against the backdrop of the mild threat of terrorism and the anti-war demonstrations in London, this is quite an oversight. Here’s why I think this is the case:

Perowne is comfortably middle class, he has a good place to live, few major worries but gets a lot of satisfaction from helping other people. Being a neurosurgeon he does this really by delving into other people in quite an invasive way to try to fix what is wrong. Baxter on the other hand is clearly a bully but on the whole his bark is worse than his bite – he says he has muscle but most of that muscle comes from his henchmen who melt away when the going gets tough. When they have their initial confrontation Perowne fairly quickly diagnoses Baxter’s genetic mental problem and starts to think about how he can help Baxter, at the same time getting himself out of a somewhat dangerous situation and making himself feel good about being a savior. Any of this sound familiar?

Then at the climax of the novel when Baxter actually invades Perowne’s home, Perowne and his family do in fact defeat Baxter, but shortly afterwards Perowne gets a call to the hospital asking for help to perform surgery on Baxter’s head injury, thereby once again saving Baxter. Again, this feels like quite the analogy to me, and it was not mentioned at all in the book club (Slate did carry a warning that many people find it hard not to start joining the book club conversation – I found myself almost shouting at them but stopped when I realized I was listening to the discussion while walking home from work and would have looked quite unhinged shouting in the street).

The other thing I just realized over the weekend was another part which the book club people seemed to miss. When Baxter is in Perowne’s house and the threat of violence is very real, Perowne’s daughter recites (at Baxter’s bidding) a poem – Baxter is so amazed and moved by the poem that he loses a lot of his aggression which leads to his downfall. Although Baxter thought that the daughter wrote the poem, it was actually Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold. The book club totally ripped into this plot move, and I agree that it was somewhat unrealistic (although kind of plausible given Baxter’s neural issues) but again they missed something major: this weekend I read for the first time Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, in which the very same poem is used in a critical plot turning point. Surely McEwan would have known this and I can’t help feeling that he deliberately used this parallel to indicate more about the Iraq war (after all, the director Michael Moore referenced Bradbury’s book in his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11).

So, I can’t say that I’ll be listening to another Slate Book Club posting – kind of disappointing and it ended up, for me, to be a waste of an hour.

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