Childhood is magical.
There is a myth, or at least a misconception, that this is a result of children being innocent. If you have ever been a child, then if you look deep into your heart, you will recognize this as the lie we tell ourselves to conceal the painful truth. Childhood is magical because it is inaccessible. Once gone, it can never be reclaimed, revisited, redone. It is lost to us except through the unreliable route of memories and mementos. Childhood is almost like a separate, first lifetime—a dream of something we did in the past, before we grew up and entered the world of adults.
As children, our world is timeless. We perceive the passage of time, the measurement of time, quite differently. Summers are almost infinite stretches of warm days and improvised games. Winters are endless opportunities for snowmen and snowball fights. Time is fluid and flexible: friends forever, then enemies the next day. In the worlds we create in our backyards, it can be the day before yesterday just as easily as it can be years into the future: our narratives are seldom linear; we’ve yet to yield to the adult idea that fiction needs to “make sense”. Make-believe is a process, not a product, and best done when not entirely serious.
As adults, we can of course strive to retain some of these qualities. I know many people who possess childlike exuberance, as well as a sense of wonder and imagination that serves them well. I try to keep these qualities too. But unless we take the extreme measure, as Charles Darke does in this book, of opting out of adult society, we can never be children. As adults our lives are relentlessly scheduled: transit, meetings, classes, deadlines, duties, chores. We are, all of us, obsessed with the question, “What time is it?” and have developed ever more accurate and precise ways to measure the passage of time so we always know the answer. One might balk at this characterization, but who doesn’t have to be some place at some particular time sometimes? This necessity to be aware of time is a very adult thing, and it is what separates us from our childhood.
The Child in Time puts childhood under a microscope and peers at what separates us from children. Stephen Lewis’ three-year-old daughter was abducted from a supermarket. Years later, he has separated from his wife and finds himself serving on a government committee drafting a report for a new child-rearing document. The British government of the future Ian McEwan imagines is a somewhat paternalistic, authoritarian one: the government knows best. Lewis seems to be sleepwalking through his life, still unable to move on after losing his daughter. He is peculiarly apathetic toward everything: politics, his relationship with his wife, his career as an “accidental” children’s author.
Indeed, most of my issues with this book stem from its unremarkable narrative. Stephen Lewis seems to stumble from scene to scene, and with the story slipping from his past to the present without much knowledge, it can get confusing. His walk is largely aimless, for he does not seize upon a purpose or a desire until the end of the book. Meanwhile, most of the interesting things around him are told to us rather than shown. Thelma tells us about Charles, with Charles himself only briefly making an appearance. Stephen tells us about his parents; his mom tells us about Stephen’s conception … there is a lot of dialogue and exposition. I had trouble enjoying this book simply because it feels so bland.
But at the same time, there is so much happening! The government wants to release a creepy child-rearing manual that’s supposed to restore the morals of the nation. Beggars can get licenses to beg and must wear badges identifying them as such. Stephen’s best friend, Charles, resigns as a Member of Parliament so he can become a recluse seeking to recapture his lost childhood. (Although Thelma eventually explains the reasons, I didn’t find it entirely satisfactory.)
I guess The Child in Time is a fairly interesting smattering of ideas, all of which have something to do with childhood. There is a sense of regret over the loss of childhood, whether it is through maturity or through abduction. There is the difficulty associated with recovering from that trauma, the tension between Stephen and his wife Julie that finally crystallizes and shatters in the novel’s final pages. The ending of this book is really good—disproportionately so compared to the rest of the story.
Like so many other books, The Child in Time falls into that uncomfortable category of books that have some merit even though, alas, I didn’t really enjoy reading them. I can see why others would, but for reasons related to McEwan’s style and characterization, the greatness of this book eludes me.
(Also, I couldn’t stop thinking about Stephen Lewis as I read this.)