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Saturday Squash
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 p&p.)

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 his family.

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 fury.”

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.