I just finished reading Ian McEwan’s 1987 novel The Child in Time. It’s the first of his books that I’ve read that I haven’t loved automatically. Yet, the book poses questions that still has me thinking about it days after I’ve finished reading it.
The Child in Time deals with a very compelling “McEwanesque” theme in which the protaganist’s life is irrevocably change by a single act not of his own doing. In this case, Stephen Lewis, a successful children’s author’s, three year old daughter disappears one Saturday morning when the two are grocery shopping. His attention is averted for less than a minute and when he looks up again, she’s gone. The extraordinary ordinariness of the events leading up to that horrific moment and how the rhythm of every day life resumes for everybody except him and his wife Julia, becomes the structure on which the narrative is based.
I suppose a part of me wanted an almost voyeuristic wrenching exploration of the emotional horror of this devastating act that befalls this family, but McEwan, of course, is much smarter than that. And this is not a facile or opportunistic examination of emotional devastation and nor is it a story that simply chronicles a family’s search for their lost daughter.
What it is, is an exploration of time and how our emotional landscape and inner narrative lives in different moments in time. Childhood is also a place that lives in time. Julia moves to a cottage in the country side while Stephen, locks himself in his apartment where he drinks, watches television and clings to the memory of his daughter, a little girl that he will only ever know as a three year old.
His only outings are to the government Committee on Childcare of which he is a member virtue of his friend Charles, his former publisher and now a minister in the government who has retreated to the country side with his wife Thelma.
When Stephen and Julia lose their child they become lost to each other. Their grief, is too large and each of them must find a way of coming to a place where they can reconcile themselves to their enormous loss.
The moment of his loss is the time around which he constructs his grief. His inner life revolves around his daughter and that manifests itself in his day to day life. He buys gifts to celebrate her birthday and becomes obsessed with a child he sees in the local school that he is convinced is his daughter.
En route to a visit with Julia he also experiences a ‘time travel’ moment when he looks inside a window from a pub to see two people having a clearly pained conversation over a beer. The couple are in fact, a young version of his parents, who are discussing whether to keep the child they have suddenly learned they are going to have. Ultimately they keep that child and that child is him.
Later the details of this event are confirmed in a conversation with his mother.
McEwan also explores the idealization of childhood through Charles, Stephen’s best friend. Charles retreats from his public political life to the countryside where he choses to embrace the childhood he never had. The idealization of childhood is what initially attracted Charles to Stephen’s work as a writer of juvenile fiction. Charles, unable to reconcile his adult self, abandons adulthood to become a childlike wood nymph. He essentially leaves ‘real time’ to live in another emotional construction of time. But like all things in life, whether ideally rendered or not, the idealized notion of childhood doesn’t exist any more for Charles than it has for Kate or Stephen, and ultimately he is destroyed by it.
Reconciliation is only possible when both Stephen and Julia are able to travel through time to embrace a present that doesn’t have Kate. It’s from this place that they can love her, remember her and move forward with their lives and their new child that is born at the end of the story. If there is a message in the end it’s that love conquers all.