An increasingly mellowed but no less gripping McEwan (Atonement, 2002, etc.) portrays a single day in the life of a well-off upper-middle-class Londoner, blessed in every conceivable way.
While crowds mass to protest the coming invasion of Iraq, Henry Perowne, a 48-year-old neurosurgeon at the top of his game, intelligent and self-aware, goes about a Saturday that’s by turns mundane and marvelous. We follow his reflections on surgeries, so well detailed as to be med-porn; lazy lovemaking upon awakening, and restorative sex at the end of the day with smart, devoted, lawyer wife Rosalind (he notes his unusual luck in still wanting no one else); a sometimes savage squash game with friend and partner Jay; a sad visit to his senile mother; and shopping for dinner. A chance encounter with Baxter, an intelligent young thug, provides the small plot; Henry escapes a mugging when he recognizes early signs of Huntington’s in the lad and takes control. That evening, at Henry’s well-appointed townhouse, in the warm glow of gathered family—father-in-law John Grammaticus, towering poet turned to drink; son Theo, a gifted young blues guitarist; daughter Daisy, a poet visiting from Paris, newly published and newly pregnant—Baxter returns and holds Rosalind at knifepoint. Terrorized and terrified, the family, through their various strengths, overcome Baxter, who lands in the hospital requiring emergency surgery from the forgiving Henry. Comprised by an active awareness of his place in the world, of his love for family and work, and of the contingencies that make his life his own, and that make Baxter’s life his own, Henry’s thoughts—especially since they’re informed also by a matter-of-fact understanding of the neurological processes that emerge as behavior and look like choice—envelop us in a total immersion experience.
A sort of middle-class humanist manifesto: when you find yourself fortunate beyond all measure in a random universe, gratitude, generosity, and compassion are a decent response.