More on McEwan

As I’ve indicated, the clarity of writing and expression isn’t the only reason I am so impressed with Ian McEwan‘s Saturday. Another part of it was he seemed to put on paper thoughts virtually identical to my own on a variety of topics, from post-9/11 society to the power of music. What perhaps hit closest to home, though, was a subplot involving the protagonist’s mother.

In that subplot, Saturday also happens to be the day neurosurgeon Henry Perowne visits his mother in a nursing home. It is apparent she suffers from Alzheimer’s. My mother, too, was afflicted by that disease. McEwan’s description of the emotions stirred by Perowne’s visits uncannily reflect my own over the course of the years my mother spent in Alzheimer’s care facilities.

His mother no longer possesses the faculties to anticipate his arrival, recognise him when he’s with her, or remember him after he’s left. An empty visit. She doesn’t expect him and she wouldn’t be disappointed if he failed to show up. It’s like taking flowers to a graveside — the true business is with the past. But she can raise a cup of tea to her mouth, and though she can’t put a name to his face, or conjure any association, she’s content with him sitting there, listening to her ramble. She’s content with anyone. He hates going to see her, he despises himself it he stays away too long.

Describing it as “taking flowers to a graveside” and the last sentence are quintessential. The person you knew is no longer there. But how can you ignore the shell that remains?

While pre-visit emotions subside with the visit, they are replaced by the post-visit emotions:

He knows the routine well enough. Once they’re established together, face to face, with their cups of dark brown tea, the tragedy of her situation will be obscured behind the banality of detail, of managing the suffocating minutes, of inattentive listening. Being with her isn’t so difficult. The hard part is when he comes away, before this visit merges in memory with all the rest, when the woman she once was haunts him as he stands by the front door and leans down to kiss her goodbye. That’s when he feels he’s betraying her, leaving her behind in her shrunken life, sneaking away to the riches, the secret hoard of his own existence. Despite the guilt, he can’t deny the little lift he feels, the lightness in his step when he turns his back and walks away from the old people’s place and takes his car keys from his pocket and embraces the freedoms that can’t be hers.

These are, I suspect, emotions experienced by anyone with a loved one suffering this disease. Powerful descriptions in their own right, they are even stronger when read as part of the whole and in the context of the novel’s undercurrent of angst and disquiet.

[H]e knows that sleep is behind him: to know the difference between it and waking, to know the boundaries, is the essence of sanity.

Saturday, Ian McEwan

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