Book Review

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

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“He wanted the security of childhood, the powerlessness, the obedience, and also the freedom that goes with it, freedom from money, decisions, plans, demands. He used to say he wanted to escape from time, from appointments, schedules, deadlines. Childhood to him was timelessness; he talked about it as though it were a mystical state.”

I found The Child in Time in the library through Benedict Cumberbatch.

I was browsing through my library’s DVD collection, which is one of my favorite ways to find movies. If I look the new-fashioned way, I usually spend 15 minutes mindlessly looking on Netflix and Amazon Prime then get tired and turn off the TV.

I saw Benedict Cumberbatch on a DVD cover, and I thought what?! He’s one of my favorite actors, and here’s a movie he’s in that I’ve never heard of and wait? It’s based on an Ian McEwan novel I’ve also never heard of?

I loved the movie and the poignant yet joyful ending, so I went to the library the next day and checked out the book.

The book has a premise that is every parent’s worst nightmare — a little girl disappears at the supermarket while at the grocery store with her father. Yet, the message of the book is tender and hopeful. 

The father is Stephen Lewis, and the book touches on the disintegration of his relationship with his wife following the loss of their child, and the ways they both cope with their grief. But in the end, the book is an ode to the timelessness of childhood, probably not an accident since McEwan wrote this book around the time his first child was born.

It touches on many themes around childhood —how a child perceives time, the agelessness of children to parents, the way a child sees her parents, the pressures parents feel in raising a child correctly, the joy a new child brings, the beauty of a child’s mind, what we can learn from children — through a beautiful narrative about the loss of a child. I love how McEwan wrote about the sense of time, using Thelma, a quantum physicist to explain man’s various theories with time — a storyline that the movie cut out for the worse.

The prose in the novel is beautiful. In this passage, Stephen and his wife are building a sand castle with their daughter, killing time until they have to leave. In this moment, they enter their child’s world, losing sense of time and their urgency to go:

“But soon, and without quite realizing it was happening, they became engrossed, filled with the little girl’s urgency, working with no awareness of time beyond the imperative of the approaching tide.”

And in this passage, Stephen says goodbye to his parents, and we see how a child is timeless in the eyes of parents. It doesn’t matter if they are 5 or 50, their child will always be a child:

“As always, they stayed out on the front path waving at their son as he receded in the sodium dusk, waving, resting their hands, then waving again as they had on the desert airstrip, till a slight bend in the street lost him to their view. It was as if they wanted to see for themselves that he was not going to change his mind, turn round, and come back home.”

I didn’t enjoy some parts of the book at first. There is a storyline about Stephen Lewis’ participation in a government committee whose task is to produce a handbook on childcare for the UK that didn’t resonate with me at first. And the ending of the book, didn’t hit me as strongly as when I watched the movie, but as with On Chesil Beach, sadly, the only other McEwan novel I’ve read, I have been thinking about the book non-stop since I finished it. And all the pieces are coming together. It’s a very deliberate and purposeful book, written to help us think about the beauty of childhood. Christopher Hitchens called this Ian McEwan’s masterpiece, and I understand why.

Rating: 9/10