This novel continues in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce's Ulysses by encapsulating a single day in the life of its main character - in this case, a British neurosurgeon named Henry Perowne.
The edition I picked up from the library had 4 pages of "international praise" at the start of the book - quotes from many reviewers lauding the brilliance of McEwan's writing. It is certainly an achievement which any aspiring writer may envy and desire to emulate. A quick and easy read, it kept me turning the pages quite contentendly, but it somehow lacked that dazzling quality which would inspire me to want to read it again.
Perowne is generally an attractive and likeable, though somewhat apologetic character, and the action centres around him preparing for a small family reunion on a day when London is brought to a standstill by an immense peace demonstration against the war in Iraq.
Most of the novel's themes are summed up in the following passage, which takes place as Perowne chooses fish for the stew he plans to make that evening.
"He turns the corner into Paddington Street and stoops in front of the open-air display of fish on a steeply raked slab of white marble. He sees at a glance that everything he needs is here. Such abundance from the emptying seas. On the tiled floor by the open doorway, piled in two wooden crates like rusting industrial rejects, are the crabs and lobsters, and in the tangle of warlike body parts there is discernible movement. On their pincers they're wearing funereal black bands. It's fortunate for the fishmonger and his customers that sea creatures are not adapted to make use of sound waves and have no voice. Otherwise there'd be howling from those crates. Even the silence among the softly stirring crowd is troubling. He turns his gaze away, towards the bloodless white flesh, and eviscerated silver forms with their unaccusing stare, and the deep-sea fish arranged in handy overlapping steaks of innocent pink, like cardboard pages of a baby's first book. Naturally, Perowne the fly-fisherman has seen the recent literature: scores of polymodal nociceptor sites just like ours in the head and neck of rainbow trout. It was once convenient to think biblically, to believe we're surrounded for our benefit by edible automata on land and sea. Now it turns out that even fish feel pain. This is the growing complication of the modern condition, the expanding circle of moral sympathy. Not only distant people are our brothers and sisters, but foxes too, and laboratory mice, and now the fish. Perowne goes on catching and eating them, and though he'd never drop a live lobster into boiling water, he's prepared to order one in a restaurant. The trick, as always, the key to human success and domination, is to be selective in your mercies. For all the discerning talk, it's the close at hand, the visible that exerts the overpowering force. And what you don't see... That's why in gentle Marylebone the world seems so entirely at peace." (p 127)
This is not an environmental novel - and from memory, these fish are the only animals mentioned - but the ways in which human perceptions of our place in the universe have changed, the way in which world events and moral reactions to them are viewed broadly, ambiguously and with only partial understanding, and then narrowed to the realm of immediate individual decisions on how to act and think, how decisions are coloured by personality how they change and develop as events impact upon the characters - these concerns are typical of the novel as a whole.
Perowne is most human in his interactions with his family - his busy lawyer wife Rosalind, his poet daughter Daisy, and blues-singing son Theo. Poetry actually plays a major role in the novel - though Perowne has limited literary tastes, his cantankerous father-in-law is a published poet and his daughter has just had her first volume published. Perowne struggles to understand the fascination and is more interested in what Daisy's poems seem to reveal about her life away from the family. He forces himself to try and understand the art, both for her sake and because he worries he might have missed something worthwhile in his single-minded focus on a medical career.
"Novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time, through days, years or even generations. But to do its noticing and judging, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of a moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill like drystone walling or trout tickling." (p129)
Poetry and literature and music are another element, just as the water was for Perowne's mother (a champion swimmer), or the physical structure of the human brain is for Perowne himself. There is a kind of escapist challenge in being able to immerse yourself in this 'other', abandoning your personality and temporarily forgetting the wash of events going on around you.
The only real action in the novel centers around a street thug named Baxter. Perowne narrowly escapes a violent confrontation with him by accurately diagnosing his medical condition, and the encounter leaves him physically and mentally uncomfortable for the rest of the day. That evening, when the family is finally gathered together, Baxter invades their home. There is potential for disaster, for Perowne's comfortable, luxurious world to be ripped apart, but in the end it is only Baxter who really gets hurt. Perowne assuages his guilt (feeling he should have handled the original altercation better) by operating to save Baxter's life, in the process deciding to forgive him and ensure he lives the rest of his short life expectancy with proper institutionalised care.
The turning point in the home invasion comes when Daisy, naked and vulnerable, quotes Mathew Arnold's poem 'Dover Beach' to Baxter (he had demanded she read something of her own from her book). I found this the most unconvincing moment of the story, perhaps because that poem has never been one that spoke to me.
"Daisy recited a poem that cast a spell on one man. Perhaps any poem would have done the trick, and thrown the switch on a sudden mood change. Still, Baxter fell for the magic, he was transfixed by it, and he was reminded how much he wanted to live. No one can forgive him the use of the knife. But Baxter heard what Henry never has, and probably never will, despite all Daisy's attempts to educate him." (p278)
Poetry, music, good food and wine - a comfortable existence transposed on a world of turmoil, of vaguely troubling thoughts and doubts about terrorism, war and genocide. At the end of the novel, Perowne stands at his window looking out at the pre-dawn, just as he did at the beginning, only now he thinks about what a doctor standing there a hundred years ago might have thought, about how lifestyles and expectations have changed over time. The novel was first published in 2005, but already it feels rather dated. I would be surprised if it endured to be a classic read in the next century.