Ian McEwan’s 1987 novel “The Child in Time” has as its central theme, the abduction of a three-year old child in broad daylight in a supermarket in suburban London in the 1980s.
Having a small child of my own, I picked up the book, read the back cover, and bought it, intrigued.
I think the premise in my mind was similar to what makes people slow down past traffic accidents – a glimpse of something horrifying and the reassurance that, it’s OK, it’s not happening to me. It’s why sadistic horror movies like Saw and Wolf Creek are so successful.
Quickly on in McEwan’s novel, we meet the central character, Steven Lewis, a successful children’s novelist living in a flat with his wife Julie, and their daughter Kate. One morning Steven lets Julie sleep in, while he and Kate dress warmly and walk to the supermarket to pick up groceries.
At the checkout, there is this ominous forbearer of disaster:
Stephen lifted the first items onto the belt. When he straightened he might have been conscious of a figure in a dark coat behind Kate.
And then, a little later:
The man with the dogfood was leaving. The checkout girl was already at work, the fingers of one hand flickering over the keypad while the other drew Stephen’s items towards her. As he took the salmon from his cart he looked down and winked at Kate. She copied him, but clumsily, wrinkling her nose and closing both eyes. He set the fish down and asked the girl for a shopping bag. She reached under a shelf and pulled one out. He took it and turned. Kate was gone.
Then follows the frantic searching down aisles. Calling out his daughter’s name. The police arrive. Stephen returns to his flat, alone, without his daughter, to tell his wife the terrible news.
At first it seemed a little far-fetched
Was is possible for a child to be abducted in such a manner, so swiftly, in a busy supermarket?
I had plans to write to Ian McEwan (or his publisher at least) to ask if this aspect of the novel was based in any way on real events.
But then, serendipitously, I came across a story about an experiment in London, where, under controlled circumstances, parents turn their attention away from their children in park for a just a few seconds, only for them to fall prey to a would-be paedophile.
There were nine children aged between five and 11 who were approached by a “stranger” who asked them to help him find his dog.
Seven, without hesitation and despite being warned about strangers, agreed to go with him, disappearing while their mothers’ attention was diverted by a telephone call.
Certainly the everyday, banal menace created in those supermarket scenes by McEwan – something he does so brilliantly – sends a cold shiver down your spine.
I expected the rest of the novel to be about a father trying to come to terms with the loss of his daughter and subsequent breakdown of his marriage. This is part of it, but McEwan turns the novel into a meditation on the idea of childhood, memory and parenthood.
Steven Lewis spends his days in stifling government-sponsored committees who are tasked with compiling a report on childcare and child-rearing. In the evenings, he sits alone in his flat drinking Scotch, thinking about Kate or his estranged wife, now living alone somewhere in the countryside.
There are strange dream-like sequences in a country pub, where he becomes the lost child looking in on his parents, many years in the past, as they come to terms with his own unplanned for conception.
His friend, Charles Darke, a junior minister in Thatcher’s government and the man who made him into a successful children’s author, gives up his plush home in London, the minor celebrity of political life and moves with his wife Thelma to a country estate, where he retreats into a child-like state, building a tree-house and making the woods his home.
There are the elements you expect in such a novel, such as Stephen going to a toy shop to buy a birthday present for his daughter, while he tries to convince himself that this is a healthy act. There is his constant fear of being away from his flat should Kate return and a disturbing episode where he decides that a child he sees in a school playground is his daughter, now much older.
Overall, I found it a strange, disjointed, stumbling and yet also bewitching novel, delving in and out of other people’s lives before returning to the story of Stephen Lewis and his quest to rejoin the world of the consciously living.
Christopher Hitchens, a close friend of Ian McEwan, called this book his “masterpiece”. I am not sure I agree.
I found I plodded along at times, not quite sure of the direction and the need for some of the diversions. But reflecting back, perhaps it deserves a second reading.
As with all McEwan’s books there are little gems here and there that touch on universal truths:
These lines struck me particularly poignantly. They are the thoughts of Stephen when visits his own parents and realises he only knows “outlines and details from stories” about their lives, but “nothing of how his parents met or what attracted them”:
Only when you are grown up, perhaps only when you have children yourself, do you fully understand that your own parents had a full an intricate existence before you were born.