Child abduction and obsession: reviewing Ian McEwan’s “The Child in Time”

the child in timeIan 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.

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Reading Christopher Hitchens: A spanking from Margaret Thatcher and more profundity

398303-christopher-hitchensI’ve just finished reading “Hitch-22” – the memoirs of the late, great Christopher Hitchens.

Some (a fair portion) of his narrative, I found difficult to grasp fully or to follow the argument to its conclusion, with sentences and paragraphs full of literary and political allusions and references which would require, if I had the time, plenty of background reading on my part.

But yet still it is engrossing, filled with wonderful little moments such as when he tells the story of how Margaret Thatcher (he swears this actually happened) made him bend over and smacked him on the backside with a rolled up pamphlet after he dared to disagree with her at a gathering in Westminster, before she became prime minister.

Not one to ever concede an argument, most notably with a women he admired awfully (not the other way round), I think Hitchens took the spanking just so that he could recount this remarkable anecdote.

There’s plenty of wit, charm, irreverence and cheekinesss in his writing (I wrote about his tips for drinking in an earlier post), but also a great deal of solemnity and painful personal recollections.

There’s bittersweet recounts of his mother, Yvonne, who never revealed her Jewish roots to her husband, Hitch’s distant, but proud father – “the commander” – and who died in a suicide pact with her lover in a bare hotel room in Athens.

Hitchens writes about his need to spend time each year in unstable countries, how he accidentally wandered into a dangerous part of Afghanistan, how he nearly got shot in Northern Ireland, his student protests, his philosophical and literary bouts with Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Susan Sontag and Edward Said to name just a few.

He also has the humility and flexibility of mind (a trait which he says separates the open-minded from the “totalitarian principle”) to admit that he held a wrong view about a situation – most notably, his opposition to the first Gulf War – and armed with better information, he has changed it.

There’s also a wonderful, incredibly poignant story retold from a Vanity Fair article about a man Hitch never got to meet – Mark Daily, a young American soldier who volunteered to fight in Iraq after being inspired by the articles he read written by Hitchens arguing there was a moral case for war (to remove the psychopathic tyrant Saddam Hussein) and who was killed in combat.

He writes of Daily:

“This is the boy who would not let others be bullied in school, who stuck up for his younger siblings, who was briefly a vegetarian and Green Party member because he couldn’t stand cruelty to animals or to the environment, a student who loudly defended Native American rights and who challenged a MySpace neo-Nazi in an online debate in which the swastika-displaying antagonist finally admitted that he needed to rethink things. If I give the impression of a slight nerd here I do an injustice. Everything that Mark wrote was imbued with a great spirit of humor and tough-mindedness.

Hitchens also writes lovingly that the country “lost an exceptional young citizen, whom I shall always wish I had had the chance to meet” who seemed to have “passed every test of young manhood, and to have been admired and loved and respected by old and young, male and female, family and friends”.

In this way, he shifts from strongly held ideological positions on religion, politics, war, the Middle East to tales of the people who shaped his life and gave him his richest experiences.

I came across a beautiful passage that made the hairs on the back of my neck bristle and really, really made me think and ponder the horror of it all.

Hitch writes about a survivor of the Rwandan genocide and the dangers of those who wish to wipe the slate clean – for a “tabula rasa” for their lives.

“I once spoke to someone who had survived the genocide in Rwanda; and she said to me there was nobody left on the face of the earth, either friend or relative who knew who she was.

“No one who remembered her girlhood and her early mischief and family lore; no simbling or boon companion who could tease her about that first romance; no lover or pal with whom to reminisce.

“All her birthdays, her exam results, illnesses, friendships, kinships – gone.

“She went on living but with a tabula rasa as her diary and calendar and notebook.

“I think of this every time I think of the callow ambition to ‘make a new start’ or to be ‘born again’.

“Do those who talk this way truly wished for the slate to be wiped?

“Genocide means not just mass killing, to the level of extermination, but mass obliteration to the verge of extinction.

“You wish to have one more reflection on what it is to have been made the object of a ‘clean sweep’?