by Ian McEwan. NewYork: Anchor Books, 2006. 304 pages. Paper 14.95. ISBN: 9781400076192.

Reviewed by Lynne S. Viti, Writing Program, Wellesley College. Email: lviti [at]


Ian McEwan’s compact novel, set in London soon after 9/11, portrays twenty-four hours in the life of middle-aged neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, whose privileged and seemingly protected world is disrupted by a series of events, each more disturbing than the last. Perowne awakens before dawn and out of his window, observes what seems a bad omen, a plane appearing to fall from the sky, provoking in him fleeting images of fundamentalist hijackers. (The television news commentator later explains that a Russian cargo plane engine has caught fire and forced the aircraft to land). As the day begins, Henry’s thoughts turn to current politics as well as family matters. Tony Blair is keen on Britain’s joining the U.S. invasion of Iraq to bring down Saddam Hussein, and thousands of Londoners are taking to the streets this day for a mass protest of Britain’s involvement in the Iraq military action. The Perowne family is gathering for a visit home from Henry’s daughter Daisy. In her twenties, an Oxford graduate and poet whose first volume has just been published, she’s arriving from Paris. Her younger brother Theo, a blues guitarist with an international following, is home to play a gig in London. Henry’s wife Rosalind, a successful lawyer for a London newspaper, and her father John Grammaticus, a distinguished poet with an appetite for spirits and wine, is also expected for the family celebration this night. Through all of these vignettes runs Henry Perowne’s incisive intelligence, not knowledge of poetry, of which he knows little despite his daughter’s attempts to educate him, but about the workings of the human neurological system, what can and does go wrong, and what can be done to repair those who suffer from brain tumors, lesions, cerebral bruises, crushed skulls.

What at the novel’s outset promises to be a routine Saturday for Henry—a strenuous game of squash with an American colleague from the hospital, visiting his elderly, Alzheimers-afflicted mother in her nursing home, stopping at the fishmonger’s to buy the makings for the evening’s festive meal—devolves into two separate harrowing encounters with criminal elements from London’s seedier side. As he motors to his squash date, a policeman waves him down a closed-off street near the anti-Blair demonstration. Henry drives “with unconscious expertise into the narrow column of space framed on the right by a kerb-flanked cycle path and on the left by a line of parked cars, “but he misjudges the distance between his Mercedes and a parked car. He hears “the snap of a wing mirror cleanly sheared and the whine of sheet-steel surfaces sliding under pressure as two cars pour into a gap wide enough for one” (p.81). It’s a common enough urban fender-bender—Henry’s car has knocked off the side mirror of a red BMW, “a vehicle he associates for no [*341] good reason with “criminality, drug dealing” (p.88). A bit arrogant and high-handed, impatient to get to the gym, Henry suppresses his road rage. He curtly informs the men he won’t give them cash, only his insurance details. Presently, Henry is punched by Baxter, the BMW owner, who delivers “a blow that’s aimed at Perowne’s heart...lands on his sternum at colossal force...They slam his back against a chain-locked double door in a recess”(pp.92-92). As the men ready themselves to beat him, Henry notices Baxter’s odd and unpredictable movements and quickly diagnoses these as the deteriorating effects of Huntington’s disease with its attendant tremors and sudden emotional outbursts. Taking a chance, knowing that “early onset tends to predict the paternal gene,” Henry confronts Baxter: “Your father had it. Now you’ve got it too” (p.95). The thug sends his fellows down the street; a curbside medical consultation ensues. Henry explains to an incredulous Baxter that there are new procedures, medications, exercises that can forestall his complete descent into the disease. Before Baxter can call his men to take up where they left off, Henry slips away “while the possibility remains that he can still rescue his game” (p. 100).

Perowne’s routine Saturday routine resumes, but with an undercurrent of discomfort. Over the course of the day the red BMW ominously appears and reappears in his rear view mirror. That evening, Baxter and his mate Nigel accost Mrs. Perowne as she is returning from work and force their way into the house. A chilling interplay between the enraged thug, Baxter, and the Perowne family rivets the reader for the next thirty pages. Even as Baxter breaks the father-in-law’s nose and holds a knife to Rosalind Perowne’s neck and threatens to use it, Henry can’t help dwelling on his clinical diagnosis of the intruder: “the unique disturbances, the individual expression of his condition—impulsiveness, poor self-control, paranoia, mood swings, depression balanced by outbursts of temper” (p.217).

After the intruders force Daisy to strip naked, presumably to sexually assault her, she succeeds in distracting and then calming Baxter by twice reciting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Promising to show Baxter the details of a new clinical trial for Huntington’s patients, Henry lures him upstairs to the study. Henry disarms Baxter and together, Henry and his son hurl the intruder down a flight of stone stairs to unconsciousness. Henry Perowne calls an ambulance, stabilizes his assailant until the medics arrive and, in the end, is called to the hospital to operate on the man. This allows the reader to reflect at length on Henry’s belief that Baxter acts as he does because of his medical condition, and thus bears scant responsibility for his crimes. As Henry sees it, “No amount of love, drugs, Bible classes or prison sentencing can cure Baxter or shift him from his course,” the inevitable and premature slide into hallucinations, round the clock nursing home care, assuming there’s the money for it, and an utterly undignified death (p.217).

This novel lends itself well to class discussion and student research within several sorts of law-based courses: law and literature; criminal law; law and medicine; and philosophy of law. The [*342] shadow of the law and snippets of urban crime loom large over every section of the book. This is the metropolis of London in the early days of our new century. A teenage drug addict and her abusive boyfriend argue in the square outside Perowne’s window. The Cockney cleaning lady at Perowne’s hospital claims her son was wrongfully fingered for an armed robbery though he has an alibi. Baxter and his cohorts emerge from the Spearmint Rhino, a strip club, moments before Henry Perowne’s fateful shearing-off of the red BMW’s side-mirror. Crime follows crime: an assault and battery first on Henry, and later on his father-in-law; the home invasion; the assault on Rosalind and the others with the French kitchen knife Baxter holds against her throat; criminal trespass, and the measures Henry and his son take to defend themselves. The police in London heartily approve of this self-help remedy: “The detective laughed out loud when Theo asked him whether he and his father had committed any crime in throwing Baxter down the stairs” (p.240).

Additionally, McEwan’s focus on what crime feels like from the victims’ side is revealing. When Henry is called to the hospital to perform emergency surgery and he reveals to his wife that the patient with the brain swelling is indeed Baxter, she says, “You’re not thinking about doing something, about some kind of revenge, are you?” (p.246) After Henry returns from the successfully procedure on Baxter, Rosalind admits that she was the one who wanted revenge, though at last she relents a bit, happy that Baxter will “ live to face charges” (p.275). The after-effects of the Perownes’ shared suffering at the hands of Baxter and Nigel manifest in their desire to get back to normal as quickly as possible. At the end of this evening all sit down to their meal of seafood and wine. They want to be “retuned to the web of kindly social and familial relations, without which they’re nothing” (p.238).

In SATURDAY, McEwan raises troubling and complex questions about Huntington’s disease, mens rea and criminal responsibility. Students of law and political science are keenly interested in discussing the relationship between a neurological condition and crime. Can someone like Baxter whose mental status is questionable, be truly capable of forming a criminal intent? Does his Huntington’s disease, a condition he has inherited from his father, constitute a permanent and ever-intensifying diminished capacity defense for his actions against Henry Perowne and the Perowne family? If the Perownes were to be unsuccessful in persuading the Crown Prosecutor not to bring charges against Baxter, if he were brought to trial, could he make a successful plea of not guilty by reason of Huntington’s? In the end, Henry does not wish “to pursue charges” against Baxter: “Baxter has a diminishing slice of life worth living, before his descent into nightmare hallucination begins” (pp. 287-288). McEwan argues that Perowne and his wife, his children and his father-in-law would “all be diminished by whipping a man on his way to hell.” (p.288) Baxter should not be prosecuted, but pitied. As Perowne muses about his assailant, “…because the door of his consciousness is beginning to close, he shouldn’t pursue his claim from a cell, waiting for the absurdity of his trial to begin” (pp.288-289). [*343]

Indeed, McEwan asserts that society’s very notion of what constitutes a crime may be faulty, and ought to be revised in light of the knowledge today’s neuroscience provides. Understandably, students are deeply uncomfortable with these questions and the lack of clear answers. What better starting point for a genuine exploration of what the law is and should be, what the law should do to protect citizens, what constitutes a crime, and when the law should take notice of deep and irremediable flaws in the offender’s genetic code?

Jensen, Per et al. 1998. “Crime in Huntington's disease: a study of registered offences among patients, relatives, and controls,” in JOURNAL OF NEUROLOGY, NEUROSURGERY AND PSYCHIATRY 65: 467-471.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Lynne S. Viti.