The most read
about squash match of the year will not be world champion Thierry Lincou’s
match with Lee Beachill in the World Open or Lincou’s physical confrontation
with Anthony Ricketts in the Tournament of Champions in New York but that
between Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, and his anaesthetist.
No doubt only a few SP readers will have heard of these players. Henry
Perowne is the central character in Ian McEwan’s latest novel ‘Saturday’
published by Jonathan Cape. McEwan has been described as ‘this country’s
unrivalled literary giant’ (Independent on Sunday) and critics have predicted
that the novel will become a no.1 bestseller. The squash match in question
runs to over eight pages in the novel. It is reviewed below by Dominic Bliss
and the full excerpt will be published shortly on the Squash Player site.
Squash Player readers can obtain a discount on the novel by called 01206
255800 and using the reference ‘squashplayer’.
(The normal price is £17.99. The Squash Player price is £16.99 with free
the only thing in life
“The moment he hits the ball he knows it’s near-perfect, curving high, set
to drop sharply into the corner. But [his opponent] is in a peculiar, elated
mood and he does an extraordinary thing. With a short running jump, he
springs two, perhaps three feet into the air, and with racket fully
extended, his thick, muscular back gracefully arched, his teeth bared, his
head flung back and his left arm raised for balance, he catches the ball
just before the peak of its trajectory with a whip-like backhand smash that
shoots the ball down to hit the front wall barely an inch above the tin – a
beautiful, inspired, unreturnable shot.”
This desperately fought squash match, in a central London sports club,
features prominently in the appraised new novel by Ian McEwan. The 19-page
episode, a grudge game between the story’s main character, neurosurgeon
Henry Perowne, and his work colleague, is not central to the plot, but it
does raise some intriguing and familiar themes that club squash players are
bound to relate to.
Such as desperation for victory: “There’s only the irreducible urge to win,
as biological as thirst. And it’s pure, because no one’s watching, no one
cares, not their friends, their wives, their children. It isn’t even
enjoyable.” Or the total and utter exhaustion at the end of a point: “They
put down their rackets, and stand bent over, breathless, hands on knees,
staring blindly into the floor, or press their palms and faces into the cool
white walls, or wander aimlessly about the court mopping their brows with
their untucked T-shirts and groaning.”
The Saturday in the book’s title is Saturday, 15th February 2003, the day
that hundreds of thousands of anti-war protesters descended on London in the
run-up to the war in Iraq.
Perowne is worried about the war and about life in general. Driving to his
weekly squash match he gets into a scrape with another car, the consequences
of which later in the day come very close to ruining his life and damaging
Squash is just one of many human endeavours that McEwan analyses in his new
book. He depicts, both authoritatively and exhaustively, subjects as diverse
as brain surgery, cuisine, blues guitar and poetry. One’s only criticism of
a virtually faultless novel might be that he is trying to show off his
various fields of expertise.
McEwan is a keen squash player himself. In his younger days he was a regular
club competitor. You can tell he has experienced all the frustration of
amateur play as he describes the self-loathing his main character Perowne
feels at losing a crucial point.
“Why has he volunteered for, even anticipated with pleasure, this
humiliation, this torture? It’s at moments like these in a game that the
essentials of his character are exposed: narrow, ineffectual, stupid – and
morally so. The game becomes an extended metaphor of character defect. As
the points fall he draws his remaining energy from a darkening pool of
And many Squash Player readers – especially older ones – will sympathise
with Perowne’s lamenting of the ageing process: “When will it be time to
give up this game?” he asks himself. “His fiftieth birthday? Or sooner. Get
out before he rips an anterior cruciate ligament, or crashes to the parquet
with his first coronary. There’s no such thing as a gentle game of squash.”
This match is just one of many battles Perowne has to engage in during this
Saturday. Aside from the road rage incident and its ensuing violence, he
also wrestles with his moral indecision over whether Britain ought to wage
war on Iraq. He clashes with his daughter and his father-in-law. He
struggles with the guilt he feels about his mother who is rotting away in an
old people’s home.
Among all his other fights, the squash match is the only one that doesn’t
really matter. Yet, while he is playing, it matters more than anything else
in the world.
Club players can relate to this: “He hears his pulse knocking in his ears,
sweat is dribbling down his spine, his face and feet are burning. There’s
only one thing in life he wants. Everything else has dropped away. He has to
beat [his opponent]. He needs to win three games in a row to take the set.
Unbelievably difficult, but for the moment he desires and can think of
nothing else. In this minute or two alone, he must think carefully about his
game, cut to the fundamentals, decide what he’s doing wrong and fix it. He
has to stop being angry with himself and think about his game.”
‘Saturday’, by Ian McEwan, is published by Jonathan Cape at £17.99.