Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
The action of the novel occupies a single day, in the run-up to the second Iraq war—a prospect which the central character, a neurosurgeon, has an ambivalent attitude towards. The immediate theme of the book is about how it is to live in London today, at a time of increasing international tension and under the threat of terrorist attack (the book was written before the July 2006 bombings but they are already adumbrated).
The book opens with Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon, standing at his window in the early morning and watching a plane heading towards Heathrow, on fire. It ends twenty-four hours later with Perowne, again at the window, wondering what thoughts would have been passing through the head of a doctor standing there a hundred years earlier at the start of the twentieth century; how could he conceive of the horrors to come? In the interval Perowne lives through a near-catastrophe when a young thug whom he has humiliated after a minor road traffic accident enters his house and threatens his family.
The tone of the book, sombre and reflective, is set by Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach, which plays a part in the story and is printed as an epigraph to the book. Perowne's mood at the end, like that of Arnold in the poem, is dominated by the realization that there is no certainty or security in life today and the only fragile and impermanent refuge left to us, if we are lucky, is the love we feel for those who are dear to us.
A powerful novel, undeniably, and well above the common run of modern fiction.
21 February 2006
%A McEwan, Ian
%I Vintage Books
%G ISBN 0-099-49716-6
%P 279 pp
%O paperback edition
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