After what has felt like countless hours of pain-staking revision, weeks of increasingly high stress levels and a whole year of work and build-up, I finally finished my AS examinations on Tuesday, an internal fanfare of celebration and jubilation resounding in my head as I put down my pen (black ink of course) to that final “You must stop writing now.” Needless to say the rest of this week has been one of absolutely blissful relaxation which, other than sleep, I have been most prominently filling with leisurely reading, the sensation of being able to do so without that nagging sense of guilt one feels when one has a more pressing task to do feeling to me unfamiliar and bizarre yet simultaneously something which I have been relishing. The speed with which I have therefore been getting through those unread titles sitting on my meticulously ordered bookcase – not to mention my imminent return to lessons to start my A2 courses on Monday meaning I will have less time to blog come next week – has thus left me to conclude that now is a good time to carry on charging through my ‘reviews’ of the books I have read, the next in line being the novel The Child In Time by the genius that is Ian McEwan, a man who is undoubtedly one of my favourite contemporary authors and in my opinion one of the finest writers in the world of late 20th/21st century fiction.
I do not think I can quite put my finger on exactly what it is that makes Ian McEwan such a good writer; I suppose it is the combination of his richly emotive and descriptive prose style, his power of creating a myriad of multi-faceted and believably complex characters, and of course his beautifully original and ever-engaging plots which really captivates me as a reader and which guarantees that whenever I pick up an as yet unread Ian McEwan novel I am in for a treat. It is therefore understandable that, having now read quite a number of his works, I had extremely high expectations when embarking upon The Child In Time, a novel which, unlike the majority of the author’s others, I did not know that much about before reading save for what I learnt about the story-line during my perusal of the blurb whilst undertaking my customary pre-Christmas book wishlist composition. And indeed it was the supposition of the thrilling sense of mystery and horrified suspense that would be associated with The Child In Time‘s kidnap plot which really intrigued me, the novel being focused around the aftermath of the disappearance of three-year-old Kate, the daughter of successful children’s author Stephen Lewis, and the latter’s desperate bids to find his little girl and cope with his inconsolable grief and guilt.
However, as I began to read The Child In Time I soon came to see that McEwan had chosen to present the repercussions of this kidnap in a manner which was much less dramatic and thriller-esque than that which I had expected a plot of this sort would epitomise, and yet I nevertheless realised that despite this absence of heart-stopping tension and a riveting showdown between father and kidnapper, McEwan’s preferred examination of the consequences was actually much more philosophical, original and intelligent than that clichéd route which a less skilful writer would no doubt have taken. For whereas it would have been all too easy for an author to simply write a rip-roaring thriller entirely focused on revenge and suspense, McEwan on the other hand has written The Child In Time from a highly realistic and emotive angle by charting the evolution of the protagonist Stephen’s emotions, internal state of mind and relationships with those around him (most prominently with his wife Julie) in the years following Kate’s disappearance, the overall effect thus being one which I felt had a much more prominent and haunting impact on me as a reader than any stereotypical approach would have done. In particular I loved how in this novel McEwan explores the way in which the loss of his child causes Stephen to look back in time to his own childhood, the titular nouns ‘child’ and ‘time’ in fact really encapsulating what this book is all about; it is actually the concepts of childhood and time which I would say are the two central and often intertwining motifs of this novel and which I have therefore chosen to focus on in this post, since indeed it was the subtle and clever means which McEwan took to present these motifs that was in my opinion one of the most memorable things about this book (a SPOILER warning is now appropriate).
I suppose the most immediately obvious way that the theme of childhood is manifested is through the occupation of Stephen and the workings of his professional life, since his status as a well-renowned author for children, whose works include the nostalgically named Lemonade – a fictional piece of fiction (if that is not too much metafiction for you) which is based upon a summer from his own youth – has recently caused him to be appointed a position on the Official Commission on Childcare, a government-led initiative geared towards the production of a final report on improvements to be made in the education system. At the same time all things youthful can also be seen to be ruling his personal life, as his ever-increasing obsession with children while he wishfully searches for traces of his daughter, to such an extent as to lead him to imagine her face on the bodies of unknown schoolgirls and inanely buy copious toys only for them to remain ownerless, is juxtaposed with his reminiscences about his own rather dysfunctional childhood, a particularly lovely moment in my opinion coming towards the end of the novel when Stephen fulfils his boyhood dream of riding a train ‘up-front’ with the driver, as I really felt that the touchingly lovely excitement which McEwan portrays in this middle-aged man at this moment is completely akin to the very sort of giddiness which so perfectly summarises childish innocence.
As well as these explicit references to the theme of childhood, more subtle is the way McEwan depicts this theme through his presentation of the character of Charles Darke, a close friend of Stephen and a former government official; despite the success, recognition and wealth which his high-up career has garnered for him during the course of his adult life, Charles, undoubtedly the most interesting and complex character in the book, is presented by McEwan as being so desperate to return to the state of childhood as to tumble over the edge of sanity into an infernal abyss of madness and an existence which sees his mannerisms retrograde into those of a young boy and his days spent in a purposeless blur of tree-climbing and schoolboy-esque shorts. While such behaviour in a grown-man may seem slightly incomprehensible – as it certainly did to me initially – the following quotation by Charles’s wife Thelma is one that not only explains and makes some sense of her husband’s bizarre attitude to life but also incorporates the novel’s two presiding themes into one intellectual aphorism: “Childhood is timelessness.” For indeed, when one takes a moment to consider the meaning of such a statement, it is clear to see that what with the freedom from responsibilities, deadlines etc. that is an inherent part of being young, childhood really is a period of simply living in the moment with no care or consideration for the implications of time, the shortest spaces of time seemingly lasting an eternity to a child due to the perspective afforded by their as yet limited time on Earth. And it is only when one looks at Charles’s comportment with this view in mind that I at least am able to understand and justify it somehow, for I suppose that even if we do not act on it as McEwan shows Charles to do, deep-down inside all of us there must be some sort of longing to reverse time and go back to those naive and carefree days of “timelessness”, if only for a short while.
Elsewhere in the novel, I felt that McEwan successfully presented the time motif in such a variety of ways as to really mirror the different interpretations which people have of time and what exactly the concept means to different sorts of people. For instance, through the character of the physicist Thelma and her academic theories about time – such as the idea that there are different branches of time and that each second holds a range of possible branches for us to follow, all potential outcomes but one ceasing to exist as we make a decision which sets us down one particular course – McEwan presents a rather scientific and intellectual approach to the concept; the frequent sections of the book which see Stephen hallucinating about his parents’ past and projecting a physical version of himself into the settings and scenes where their youthful selves used to be seemed to me the exact sort of ‘stepping back in time’ experience of time which would be so appealing to the historian fascinated with the past; the use of a jumpy, not completely chronological structure throughout the novel, which sees the narrative switching back and forth between numerous time frames in a manner which I would describe as similar to somebody piecing together a jumble of memories, makes evident the omnipotent, Godlike manipulation which writers like McEwan are able to exercise over their fictional worlds in a way that it is impossible for anyone to do in real life.
Yet ultimately I feel that the themes of both childhood and time were really embodied through Kate, the eponymous ‘child in time’ herself, her disappearance and the eventual fruitlessness of all efforts to find her meaning that even if she was never actually killed by her kidnapper (a point which McEwan leaves unspecified and open to the readers’ speculation) she will remain in the eyes of Stephen a child stuck in time, forever a three-year-old for whom time and the ageing and experiences it brings are denied. And while such a brutally realistic resolution of the matter did appear to me rather bleak and pessimistic, I think that McEwan was very clever in choosing to add a sense of the bittersweet to the ending of the novel so as to leave the reader with some feeling of hope and thus a more positive lasting impression to take away with them, an effect achieved through the fact that the final scene of The Child In Time sees Stephen reunited with his estranged wife and their new child being born in an intimate home-birth setting; in my view this new birth, although in no way able to make up for the loss of Kate or act as a replacement for her, so beautifully represented a new chance for Stephen and Julie where time and childhood and, most importantly, love could start again as to really bring a tear of emotion to my eye. In short, the perfect emotive conclusion for a perfectly emotive novel.
Link for official Ian McEwan website on side.