Ian McEwan’s books fall into two categories for me: those that start superbly and kind of taper off (Atonement, Enduring Love) and those that start well and end well (Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach). This fell soundly into the latter category.
The novel follows a day in the life of Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon. It’s a novel about a professional man who has just started the downward descent after reaching middle age. It examines his marriage, his work, his body and his mind. His relationships are analysed one by one, from that with his wife, through to his senile mother, to his children. This is set against a backdrop of central London on the day of a march against the Iraq war.
If you are after a quick read, this is not going to be a satisfying 279 pages. McEwan paints his life in detail. At times, there was too much detail for me. No, I’ll rephrase that. I love Tolstoy and that’s too much detail. Here, the detail is just banal. However, I’m sure that’s the intention. Our everyday lives are filled with banality; little observations that we make from moment to moment don’t really add up to much in the scheme of things after all.
Henry’s day begins early and ends late. It is certainly packed with incident. But the way McEwan writes it feels much longer than one day. When I sat back and thought about all that had happened in this day, it was certainly quite sensational. This is not “a day in the life” at all. There are a number of critical incidents which the average person would happily not wish for on their day off.
Above all, this book has a complexity about it which probably deserves more than one reading. However, I came away from it feeling like McEwan was trying to be Coetzee and not quite making it. There was a clarity of analysis lacking for him to reach those dizzy heights. All in all though, this is a good British novel and no mistake.
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