McEwan, Ian - Saturday

  (09 March 08)

A Clutch of Books

Judith Bore reflects on 
Virginia Wolfe's Mrs Dalloway (Hogarth 1925)
Ian McEwan's Saturday (Doubleday 2005)
John Pearson's Train Doors Slamming (Writersworld 2005)
Sally Vickers's Miss Garnet's Angel (Fourth Estate 2000)

Reviewed May 2006

Over the last year or so a quartet of novels has got caught up in my Sea of Faith dilly bag. It is time to get them out and discover why they are there. What are the threads of connection?

One thing might be that they are all to a greater or lesser extent ‘stream of consciousness’ novels. One of them, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Wolfe (Hogarth 1925), is an early example by the inventor of the genre. In it we accompany Clarissa, wife of a British cabinet minister, from the beginning to the end of the day on which she holds one of her parties. Listening in on her thoughts we learn of her past, the choices she has made and of the people she encounters.

However, this classic of literary fiction is mainly here because of its close connection, as I see it, with Saturday by Ian McEwan (Doubleday 2005), a recent offering from this Booker Prize winning author. The latter is an almost perfect transposition of Mrs Dalloway from a day in the 1920s to the day of the protest march in London against the invasion of Iraq. The protagonist this time is Henry Perowne, a successful surgeon who is also preparing for a family party. His day’s tasks, however, are not so much intruded upon by psychological threat as Clarissa’s are (as well as by chance meetings and events), but by real physical threat. At the end of Saturday we join Henry in the operating theatre, just as we join Clarissa at the end of her party. To find out what they both make of their respective days you’ll have to read their stories for yourself. 

The third novel, Train Doors Slamming (Writersworld 2005), is also of the ‘day in the life of’ type, but its heroine is neither a 1920s society hostess nor a 21st century sophisticated professional. Its author is not a bright star of literary history, just John Pearson, long-time member and office-holder of SoF UK. 

His character Mary is nearer to the end of her life than both Clarissa and Henry. The pivotal point of her life has been her whirlwind and secret love affair with an American bomber pilot in World War II. His death on a raid brings it to an abrupt end. Her mother‘s death in an air raid on London shortly afterwards leaves her homeless and alone with the decision about the future of her unborn child. As the elderly Mary travels back towards the places where these events took place she reads her father’s diaries and we feel the self-questioning that must have accompanied her throughout her long single life. But we are gratified to learn that there has been another and very different kind of love-affair. Coming much later, very recently in fact, this other romance has helped to reconcile her to life, its contingencies, human desire and human frailty. Hers has been a life without ‘capital F’ faith with all its certainties and the blind Reg has not converted her to his Anglicanism, but the very fact that she is making her pilgrimage witnesses to a restoration of the capacity to love and trust.

Late-in-life reconciliation with life is also the theme of Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers (Fourth Estate 2000). Grief erupts in the life of Miss Garnet and forces her to encounter and gradually embrace openly and with satisfaction what might be called in modern parlance the life of the ‘Other’. The external ‘other’ has previously been held at arms length on the other side of schoolroom desks, the psychic ‘Other’ behind a well-constructed wall of atheism and rationality. This story is more apparently ‘religious’ than Train Doors Slamming in that the actual story is both paralleled and underpinned metaphorically by an on-the-page retelling of the story from the Book of Tobit. And Miss Garnet’s detective work in Venice brings to light surprising and touching instances of religious boundaries dissolving. However there is a resonance for me between the two books.

Why are these all somehow ‘sea of faith’ novels for me? They do allow us to witness how the four characters experience and negotiate the great waves of life from the inside out. So in a sense it is their spirituality or lack of it that is depicted.  When Salley Vickers visited Australia last year she talked about what makes a story religious. 

A story is religious, she said, if it links you to the past, and propels you into the future. This is what the story of Tobias and the Angel does for Julia Garnett. In turn she becomes an angel in the lives of the young folk she comes across. In the same way we can look for the angels in the other novels.

And what has finally convinced me to get these thoughts to our editor? Well I guess it was Nicholas’s February article which referred to that other “non-scientific” current that flows in Sea of Faith.

It would seem that there is now within some churches in Australia a much more overt movement towards allowing a more progressive Christianity to be expressed and some SoFiA members are part of this.  Alongside this development my hope would be that SoFiA can be a place/space where we can draw more widely in our search for meaning and understanding. Having taken very seriously in my teenage years the demand of evangelical Christianity that you make a personal response, I realized I could not sign up as a theist. One thing I was sure of, though, was that that wasn’t the point of religion anyway. So I also hope that SoFiA is a place for generating and allowing personal response and individual expression. 

In writing about the novels earlier in this piece I make no attempt to review them critically from a literary point of view. They may, however, be of interest to other SoFers who are students of human nature and the phenomenon we call ‘religion’ and also lovers of life. 

 An additional reason for including John Pearson‘s book is that it is a first (and, so he says, last) novel. One of the great joys of Don Cupitt’s writing and thinking is that it challenges us to do our own. So whilst taking advice from the master winemakers, past and present, let us in SoFiA enjoy putting new wine in new skins.


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