Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Child in Time, by Ian MacEwan

Image from Richmond Hill Public Library

Stephen and Julie live through the worst nightmare possible: their young daughter is snatched and they wait in hope and uncertainty, unable to learn her fate.

The devastation of loss hits the husband and wife in different ways, and they are torn apart as each tries to come to terms with the absence of their beloved child.

For a time, Stephen retreats into drink and solitude. Then, after accosting a child he has mistakenly convinced himself is his daughter, he pulls himself together. He starts to work again, takes up an exercise routine, and begins studying Arabic poetry and calligraphy.

In an attempt to come to terms with the ghastly interruption to motherhood, Julie has moved away to a country cottage. In spite of their estrangement, Stephen visits his wife.

En route to her home, he becomes involved in a minor mystery that involves old bicycles at the pub, but does not share this experience with his wife. Later, he visits his aging parents, and while his father is on a rare outing, he unexpectedly learns of the reaction of his mother when she first became aware of her unplanned pregnancy with her son, in circumstances that were far from ideal.

Meanwhile, Stephen and Julie's friend Charles Dark and his wife Thelma, a quantum physicist, have mysteriously gone off to live in the country. Charles has dropped out of a promising political career, and until Stephen visits the couple in their new circumstances, he finds this inexplicable. However, this visit unearths yet another mystery.

The book was first published in 1987 by Jonathan Cape and won the Whitbread Novel Award. The story takes place during the Thatcher years, and the fictional Prime Minister of a very dystopic government comes into it too. Disappointed that Charles has left politics and left London, the PM pumps Stephen, even bringing a team of MI5 functionaries to search his apartment for a reason that is never entirely clear.

Incredibly, with all these developments, McEwan manages to pulls the reader away from the bald fact of the opening tragedy. The author spins a series of mysterious entanglements between past and present, somehow tied in with the realities of Thelma Dark's quantum physics.

Thus when Thelma summons Stephen with an urgent phone call and the Charles story reaches a climax, the reader is doubly surprised to see this side plot quickly resolved and followed by an astonishing and satisfying closure of the original story line.

While I was listening to the CD version of McEwan's novel, (Harper Collins, read by Anton Lesser), I imagined the author having some of the qualities of the character Stephen. Perhaps he too seeks out train seats where he is least likely to be joined or spoken to, and keeps a handful of banknotes in a blank notebook in his desk drawer, to be used in case of emergency.

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