‘The Child in Time’ by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 stars

The disappearance of Stephen’s daughter seems to be the incident that will set in motion a chain of events in The Child in Time by Ian McEwan. However, as the story progresses, this novel turns out to be a patchwork of different segments, which unfortunately never fully come together into a harmonious whole. The theme of childhood and the main character, Stephen, serve as a link between everything that happens throughout the book, but nothing feels wholly realised. The novel is at its best when it focuses on Stephen’s emotions.

Stephen’s life completely changed after he went with his three-year-old daughter, Kate, to the supermarket and, while at the checkout, she disappeared from the trolley. His marriage suffered a major setback. He and his wife, Julie, dealt with their tribulation in a very different way. He went looking for Kate everywhere on his own, even after the police lost interest in the case. On the other hand, she sat all day on her armchair in the bedroom, until one day she decided to leave to a retreat without previous warning.

Julie and Stephen’s separation was not simple. When she returned from her retreat, they occasionally saw each other. At those instances, for a little while, it felt like nothing had changed. They shared the same level of intimacy as before. But then the memories of their daughter’s disappearance would take over and an awkwardness would immediately grow between them. Their connection feels real and the way in which it is described is absorbing.

“They were talking freely, but their freedom was bleak, ungrounded. Soon their voices began to falter, the fast talk began to fade. The lost child was between them again. The daughter they did not have was waiting for them outside. Stephen knew he would be leaving soon.”

A famous writer of children’s books, Stephen maintained a close friendship with his former publisher, Charles Darke, and his wife, Thelma, who was a physicist. When Stephen wrote his first book, he had an adult audience in mind. It was Charles who firmly believed that it should be marketed as children literature. He voiced interesting ideas on the irrelevance of the distinction between books aimed at children and adults. Later, Charles became a politician, despite not having any tangible ideas for the country and hoping mainly to achieve personal gratification.

Although this is a short novel, it encompasses a variety of instances that don’t have much relevance to the initial ordeal. The reader is not only presented with moments from Stephen’s life after his daughter disappearance, but also with his participation on a commission on childcare, recollections about the past and some of his interactions with his parents and friends. Mid-way through, it starts delving into the concept of time. Can we witness moments that happened in the past? What do we choose to remember and to forget? Interesting topics that seem out of place and don’t have much bearing on the opening story, though.

The Child in Time shines when it focuses on how Stephen dealt with the absence of his daughter. His feeling of loss mixed with an almost irrational hope are touching and gripping without being soppy.

“He brought to mind the three-year-old, the springy touch of her, how she fitted herself so comfortably round his body, the solemn purity of her voice, the wet red and white of tongue and lips and teeth, the unconditional trust. It was getting harder to recall. She was fading, and all the time his useless love was swelling, encumbering and disfiguring him like a goitre.”

Ian McEwan tried to juggle too many elements in this novel. It feels like he had various stories in mind and couldn’t decide which one to tell. Each event in which Stephen was involved in would have made for a couple of interesting separate tales. Sadly, they don’t work seamlessly together.

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