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September 17, 2008 / Amy Bradney-George

The Child in Time

The Child in Time is yet another Ian McEwan novel that has stunned me with it’s exploration of the human condition. The protagonist, Stephen Lewis, is a successful childrens author and a loving husband and father. When his three-year-old daughter disappears on an excursion to the supermarket he has to grapple with not only telling his wife but also dealing with the loss. After his marriage falls apart, his writing stops and his closest friends move out of London into the countryside, Stephen stays in the city and tries to live with his grief and loss.

Grief is a strange thing. It doesn’t follow the rules, particularly when it comes to time. Much like the subject matter  time is not linear in this narrative. The story moves between Stephen thinking about his daughter in the past, speculating about the future, contemplating the dullness of the present or exploring the strangeness of his dreams. In between his own thoughts and actions are the stories of those around him – his friend Thelma talking of physics and her husband’s fragile mental state, his mother recounting the story of his conception and the often amusing politics of the child literacy committee he partakes in once a week.

In many ways it seems Stephen himself is outside of time, a liminal entity stuck between the past, stories and dreams. While Stephen was grieving he was outside of time, but once he began to address it head on, things started to fall into place again. I think it was this manipulation of time that made the book so moving.

Another interesting element was the nature of children. While Stephen’s daughter is already missing in the main timeframe of the book, there are many other characters who express childish behaviour. Most prominent is Stephen’s close friend and former publisher, Charles Darke, who goes from a promising political career to an isolated life outside the city with his wife. When Stephen last sees him, Charles has reverted to a youthful boy in manner – climbing trees, collecting marbles, making lemonade and refusing to talk of the life he once led.

I got the impression that Charles’ regression into a child-like state had to do with having a lot of responsibility from a young age. His wife, Thelma, talks about this towards the end of the book, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Charles’ condition is a warning about growing up too fast. He was trying to capture the magic of an age that he missed, and in doing so worrying the people around him. While Stephen lost his child, Charles lost his childhood, and the different coping mechanisms of each character beautifully illustrated how each had lost something dear to them.

Loss again came in the form of the homeless people. Stephen seemed to have a fascination with them, often observing them on his travels to and from meetings or when he’s visiting Charles and Thelma. Interestingly Stephen is made uncomfortable by these street figures, although they are victims of loss too.

Once again I’ve found McEwan’s narrative style to be sharp, explorative but also very self-contained. Everything that happens in the book has some thematic relevance and significance to Stephen’s own journey, out of time. The extracts from a fictional handbook on children, introducing each chapter often foreshadowed events and directed reflection, as well as adding humour and lightness at times. The resolution was happy, but also inconclusive enough that it left me thinking about grief and the imprint it leaves no matter how much time passes.


One Comment

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  1. Denis Semchenko / Sep 25 2008 6:09 pm

    Sounds like a good read… a well-written and researched review! Good work Amy 🙂
    P.S. I’ve got a new blog 🙂

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