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Ian McEwan: The Child in Time

This is the book that took McEwan from being a good writer to a great writer. Stephen Lewis is a successful children’s writer (McEwan himself has written one children’s book). He is on a dull government commission called the Official Commission on Child Care. One day he goes to the supermarket with his three-year old daughter, Kate. While in the queue, he is temporarily distracted and, suddenly, Kate has disappeared. He searches, the supermarket staff search, the police search, but there is no trace of Kate. She has disappeared. Eventually, his marriage breaks up and his wife, Julie, enters a mystical phase. Most of the rest of the book concerns his relationship with his parents, with Julie, with Charles Darke, his somewhat mysterious editor and subsequently good friend who has a career in politics and then suddenly resigns, and the Committee and its members. But what McEwan does is have his protagonist question, in the light of the disappearance of his daughter, what I suppose we might call the meaning of life – why we do what we do, what it means to us, what other people mean to us. He does it not just through Lewis but also through Darke (why did he give up his political career), Julie (her mystical phase) and others. For McEwan’s novel is not about plot or about character, it is about ideas and, if the novel is to have any value beyond mindless entertainment, it has to function as a vehicle for the discussion of ideas.

I have only hinted at the possibilities of this novel in this brief summary. The role of Charles Darke and the politics of the day are a vital component as, of course, is Lewis’ constant thinking of Kate and reminders of her when he sees other young girls who might be her. But if this book does not have you thinking about who you are and where you are going, check your pulse, you might just be already dead. I would place it as one of the foremost English novels of the latter part of the twentieth century.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Jonathan Cape