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The gritty mix
Ian McEwan plots his way past Iraq

The Saturday of Ian McEwan’s new novel is February 15, 2003, the day of a huge protest in London against the impending invasion of Iraq. Henry Perowne, a 48-year-old neurosurgeon living a comfortable life of achievement, is ambivalent about the inevitable war but mostly takes what he feels is a measured stand as to its necessity. Perowne, a thoughtful and humane man, sees himself as a realist, by temperament and by training. He’s a man who spends his days performing delicate maneuvers on damaged brains and so is on intimate terms with certain physical truths. And he has no illusions about Saddam’s bottomless cruelty or the corrosive utopianism of radical Islamists who "belong in a doomed tradition about which Perowne takes the conventional view — the pursuit of utopia ends up licensing every form of excess, all ruthless means of its realisation. If everyone is sure to end up happy for ever, what crime can it be to slaughter a million or two now?"

On this particular Saturday, Perowne’s grown daughter, Daisy, is coming from Paris to visit. Daisy is a published and prize-winning poet, and though he’s proud of her, he also finds himself unengaged by the books (the usual classics) she’s given him to read over the years in her attempt to broaden his education if not the boundaries of his soul. Perowne doesn’t feel he needs novels. He doesn’t want "to have the world reinvented; he wants it explained. The times are strange enough. Why make things up? He doesn’t seem to have the dedication to read many books all the way through." He’s more sympathetic to the pursuits of his son, Theo, an 18-year-old blues musician who’s making demo tapes and already receiving accolades from the British blues establishment.

These young adults with their decidedly non-rational tastes were encouraged at an early age by another guest who’s coming this Saturday, Perowne’s father-in-law, a famous poet and dedicated alcoholic with the imposing and unlikely name of John Grammaticus. The dinner that evening is also to be something of a reconciliation, since Grammaticus, in his boozily egotistical way, insulted a poem of Daisy’s that had won the prestigious Newdigate prize. Her metamorphosis from student at his knee to full-fledged competitor is just too much for the old man to bear.

Rounding out this happy (despite grandad’s moodiness) little family is Henry’s wife, Rosalind, a lawyer for a newspaper, a busy successful professional like her husband and as ostensibly serene. All is set, then, for a nuanced family drama against the backdrop of a particularly intense historical moment. But this is an Ian McEwan novel, and so a few nasty plot turns are to be expected. And it’s at these points, the swelling of tension and its later detumescence, that one snaps out of the reverie induced by McEwan’s assured and intelligent prose, his dozens of minute observations about the psychic texture of post–September 11 life and the bubbling-under strains and joys in the life of a normal (if rich) family, and hears the creaking sounds of improbable machinations being dragged on stage and into the service of storytelling.

Which is to say, at these points, things become hard to believe. Perowne, on the way to meet his anesthetist for their regular squash game, has a minor car accident that leads to an encounter with three thugs who threaten to throttle him. But he’s noticed that the lead thug, a bad piece of work named Baxter, seems to be suffering from the early stages of Huntington’s Chorea. Just at the point when the beating seems unavoidable, he confronts Baxter and suggests he might be able to help. This confuses Baxter enough to allow Perowne to make a speedy getaway. The good doctor’s scientific acuity seems to have saved the day, but later Baxter comes to his house with the intent of terrorizing his family. Again the crisis is taken to the point of seeming no return, but this time art comes to the rescue and, not to give away too much, the deus ex machina is Matthew Arnold’s "Dover Beach."

All this doesn’t really ruin the book, but it’s surprising after the surefootedness of the shifting story in McEwan’s last novel, Atonement (2002), that plotting would be this one’s weak point. Maybe the author’s greater attention was elsewhere, guiding the reader through the coping intricacies of modern life. As has been the case since McEwan entered his mature phase (which includes 1998’s Enduring Love), his earlier grimness and tendency to be "shocking" is tempered by a more expansive vision, one with more perspective. There’s even something like optimism, or perhaps just the resigned feeling that things can’t get worse. "How foolishly apocalyptic those apprehensions seem by daylight," Perowne thinks, reflecting on his nighttime apprehensions of catastrophe, "when the self-evident fact of the streets and the people on them is their own justification, their own insurance. The world has not fundamentally changed. Talk of a hundred-year crisis is indulgence. There are always crises, and Islamic terrorism will settle into place, alongside recent wars, climate change, the politics of international trade, land and fresh water shortages, hunger, poverty and the rest."

Ian McEwan reads next Friday, April 1, at 6 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle Street in Harvard Square. Tickets are $3 and can be purchased at the Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Avenue in Harvard Square; call (800) 542-READ.

Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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