A Child in Time
The ordinary missing child story goes like this: parent loses child, parent searches for child, parent branded suspect, parent’s relationship with spouse unravels, parent becomes obsessed with finding child, parent becomes estranged from spouse, parent self-medicates, parent’s life falls apart, parent clears his/her name or learns to live as suspect, parent learns what became of child, parent and spouse reach closure. Ian McEwan’s A Child in Time goes like that but also goes beyond grief and loss and obsession to explore time itself and what it means to be lost in time.
After well-known children’s novelist Stephen Lewis loses his three-year-old daughter Kate at the grocery story, he becomes obsessed with finding her. Eventually he becomes estranged from his wife. He takes to the bottle and lets his writing slide.
Stephen lives in an off-kilter London. Thatcherism has run amok. No one knows the prime minister’s gender. The government has scrapped the welfare state and embraced a draconian social welfare agenda á la Jonathon Swift’s satire, A Modest Proposal. The young beggar woman Stephen mistook for his daughter dies from exposure and Stephen places his coat on her corpse.
Charles Darke, Stephen’s one-time mentor and publisher at Gott Publishing, has opted out of the adult world and in to boyhood. He has literally shape-shifted to a 12-year-old boy.
In addition to having a friend who’s dialed back the biological clock by decades, Stephen steps back in time himself. He witnesses a puzzling scene that happened between his parents decades earlier.1
All these experiences are like a fairy tale’s touchstones. Stephen needs to understand each of them before he can come to terms with the loss of his daughter and make his way back toward wholeness.
1Appropriately, Stephen’s parents first laid eyes on each other while his mother was employed in a department store dusting clocks. His father was the dashing young military man wanting his money back for a clock that stopped working.