This novel spans one day in the life of a London neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne. It is set on a specific day, Saturday, February 15, 2003, when mass demonstrations were held in London protesting the coming war on Iraq. This actual historical and geographical context colors the fictional narrative, told entirely from the point of view of Perowne, who wakes in the early hours of the morning to see a burning aircraft descending towards Heathrow. Although this turns out not to be a terrorist attack, as Perowne at first fears, it sets up the book's atmosphere of foreboding and the powerful contrast between dangerous world events and Perowne's essentially happy family.

The Perownes are all talented and successful and fond of each other. Henry's wife, Rosalind, is a media lawyer; their son, Theo, a blues guitarist; and their daughter, Daisy, a published poet. This Saturday's highlight is to be a family dinner, where it is expected that Daisy and her grandfather, John Grammaticus, a famous poet, will reconcile after an argument.

Henry is on the way to his morning squash game when he is involved in a minor car accident with a dubious character named Baxter. He escapes theft and a beating by realizing that Baxter suffers from Huntington's Disease. He tells Baxter the diagnosis and offers hope of a non-existent treatment, shifting the power base of the encounter from brawn to brain and humiliating Baxter in front of his cronies. (This part of the novel was published in the New Yorker as a short story, The Diagnosis. See the annotation in this database for a more detailed account.)

Henry then plays an aggressive game of squash with Jay Strauss, his American colleague, and they discuss the Middle East and the impending war. He buys seafood at the market for the evening's dinner, and he goes to the nursing home to visit his mother, Lily, who has multiple-infarct dementia. He listens to his son's band, goes home and cooks dinner. He argues with Daisy, his daughter, just come from the protest march, about the coming war.

When the family is gathered for dinner, Rosalind returns from work and Baxter and his henchmen force their way into the house. They threaten Rosalind with a knife, break Grammaticus's nose, and force Daisy to strip, at which point Perowne realizes his daughter is pregnant. Then Daisy recites poetry--Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"--and, unlikely as it is, the effect of the poem is to distract Baxter enough that Perowne is able to lure him upstairs with the promise of more information on treating Huntington's, and he and Theo then throw Baxter down the stairs. Baxter is taken away in an ambulance, and later Perowne is called in to operate on his brain. The novel ends with Perowne back in bed with his wife.


This novel is about medicine to the extent that McEwan chose a brain surgeon as his lens on post 9/11 England. Henry Perowne is smart, successful, and pragmatic. He has a scientist's view of the brain, and also a physician's (but not, perhaps, a novelist's) access to the mind. His diagnosis of Baxter's disease and his later surgery on Baxter's brain are interconnected; both are a complex mixture of altruism and arrogance and self-defense that characterize Henry's interactions with the world around him.

He is emphatically unliterary, not seeing the point of fictions. McEwan presents this perspective as both practically useful and as a limitation. Throughout his day, Henry struggles to make sense of his life in its place and time. He is ambivalent about the "war on terror," both outraged by the suffering caused by Saddam Hussein (through a patient, he has heard first-hand details) and deeply suspicious of the motivations and wisdom of U.S.-led military aggression.

He tries to imagine the present as it would be seen from a different historical perspective, but he finds he lacks "the lyric gift" to see past the actual and immediate to the full imaginative meaning of the place and time he inhabits (173). The curse of the realist, McEwan implies, is an inability to escape from the present. The virtue of the literary imagination is to foster that escape and the understanding it presumably endows. This is made literal in the effect of Daisy's recitation of Arnold's poem at the climax of the novel, where McEwan indirectly presents "Dover Beach" as a meditation on the "darkling plain" of the world of the early twenty-first century.

There are limits to literary meaning, though, too. The poem functions to rescue Perowne's family from the external threat posed by Baxter and the various kinds of violence and hostility he represents, and Arnold's solution might also be Perowne's: "Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!" In a world such as this, meaning lies in the intimate and domestic, in our relationships with those we love.

Even this conclusion is undermined, though. McEwan reminds us that lived time does not have the meaningful shape of fiction. "Unlike in . . . novels, moments of precise reckoning are rare in real life; questions of misinterpretation are not often resolved. Nor do they remain pressingly unresolved. They simply fade" (159). Perhaps this is the novel's real challenge to our reliance on narrative.


Tan A. Talese / Doubleday

Place Published

New York



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