Setting a novel within the confines of a single day, yet having it encapsulate a lifetime, is a common enough literary challenge. Think James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, or in recent years Michael Cunningham or Don DeLillo. Now it's Ian McEwan's turn. Saturday, the absorbing new novel by this celebrated British writer who scored the Booker Prize two novels back with Amsterdam and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his last, Atonement takes place on a particular Saturday in February 2003, the day of the largest anti-war protest ever staged in England.

As more than a million protesters converge on Central London, the impending war in Iraq looms in the thoughts of Henry Perowne, a middle-aged neurosurgeon with an almost ideal life. Like everyone else post 9/11, Perowne is dealing with nagging anxiety over the state of the world, but on a day-to-day basis, the unflappable doctor is largely immune to the darker possibilities. He lives in a palatial townhouse on one of London's more fashionable squares, adores his wife and children and loves his work. Yet on this particular Saturday, Perowne inexplicably awakens before dawn and finds himself watching out the window of his bedroom as an airplane, its wing aflame, descends toward the city. A disturbing image in the best of times, this reminder of terrorism's grip sets the tone for the day, though it proves to be merely a Russian cargo plane making an emergency landing at Heathrow, and not an Al-Qaeda-manned weapon of destruction. Perowne himself is ambivalent about the inevitable invasion of Iraq, but cannot disengage from the exhilarating rush of purpose that has infiltrated London as he sets off later that morning on what would normally be mundane Saturday tasks. As he drives his Mercedes, the idealistic and largely ascetic Perowne fights off lingering guilt over owning such an expensive car. Said car soon will become the catalyst for the day's alarming turn of events. Though many of London's streets are closed because of the march, a policeman allows Henry to circumvent a roadblock. Minutes later he is involved in what would normally be just an inconvenient fender-bender. But the driver of the other car is thug named Baxter, with a hair-trigger thirst for vengeance. Perowne, who can see that a degenerative neurological disorder afflicts his assailant, manages to extricate himself from the fracas by calling the condition to the young man's attention. But later in the day, the humiliated Baxter and another ruffian will show up at his home, set on violent retaliation.

In the meantime, though, the day continues on as planned. Like Mrs. Dalloway, Perowne has festivities on his mind. His beloved daughter, Daisy, is arriving that evening from Paris, and the entire family will be together to celebrate the publication of her first volume of poetry. Even the fact that his pompous father-in-law, a famous poet, will be there, cannot not dampen Perowne's sense of cheerful anticipation. But Baxter and his chum crash the party, and things get ugly as they attempt to exact revenge on the family. Perowne's general contentment, and his nobility in the way he ultimately deals with Baxter, run counter to the underlying sense of foreboding, and it is the tension created by this juxtaposition that makes Saturday so compelling. This man thoughtful, cultured, kind-hearted is an unabashedly civilized man in an increasingly uncivilized world. He can see both sides of an issue with rare equanimity, be it the war in Iraq or the motives of a disturbed man threatening the sanctity of his family. He views the world with the same precision with which he views a cerebral cortex, and even as society unstoppably marches onward toward chaos, he holds onto the belief that there is a rightness that must prevail.

Despite the violence at its core, Saturday is a deceptively gentle, if disquieting novel. Is its microcosmic view of one man's day in these unsettling early years of the 21st century intended to provoke us or reassure us? McEwan leaves that open to discussion, making no didactic claims. Whether decent men like Perowne are anachronisms, doomed idealists or our last best hope is left to the reader to decide.

Robert Weibezahl's novel, The Wicked and the Dead, will be published later this year.

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