What greater nightmare can any parent have than that of a stolen child? Such an enormous, capricious loss would unutterably alter any adult life, with the horror and longing, the endless doubts, the fantasies of finding or recognizing the older child, and the desire to discern, in the moment of the ghastly event, what one did wrong, what one might have been able to change, would haunt a parent forever. This is the subject matter of Ian McEwan's new novel, "The Child in Time," and it is powerful, heart-rending stuff. McEwan's dazzling, contrapuntal, subtly mystical gifts as a writer creep out of the subtexts to this single horrible event, and the novel he creates becomes a commentary on marriage, on government, on society, on international relations, parents and children, and even quantum physics and the very nature of time itself.
Like the recent novel "Staring at the Sun" by Julian Barnes, "The Child in Time" is set in the very near future, in which the everyday has remained remarkably the same, except for the fact that it is freed, for the writer, from the restraints of our knowledge or preconceptions about our own time. "The Child in Time" is also similar to Alice McDermott's "That Night"; both books use a main character's obsession with one past event, an event that shapes each character's life thereafter.
Stephen Lewis, the main character of "The Child in Time," has his toddler daughter stolen from him in a supermarket. The ensuing destruction of his marriage, his professional life (he is a writer of children's books), and his ability to cope with mundane existence makes up the plot of the book. But the book is really about the nature of childhood, positing that many adults have much stronger ties to the children they used to be than one would suspect, particularly adult men. Stephen's boyhood dream of riding in a train's locomotive is fulfilled in the book's magical final chapter. Stephen's friend, Charles, a success in business and politics, hides a frightening connection to the childhood he never had. A lost childhood, lost childhood hopes and dreams remain present in the seemingly mature adult, McEwan suggests, not only in memory but in a kind of time that spirals in upon itself, seems to be recapturable in some plausible intermingling of Einstein and Proust, quantum physics and magical realism.
McEwan uses the literary microcosm, where characters and events recur for thematic reasons, to underscore this magical theory about time. Just as a beggar girl who Stephen gives too much money to turns up later, shockingly, in a train station to teach Stephen yet another lesson about childhood and death. Stephen "turns up" to witness his parents together before they were married, enacting what he will later find out had been the scene that determined his life. Stephen seems to have fallen through some lacuna in the warp and woof weave of time here, and it is eerily beautiful.
The style of this novel is spare, dark, cynical, graceful and cerebral, perfectly suited to the complex themes, but also in surprising and bittersweet contrast to its denouement. The ending wrought from the multilayered, difficult, moving story amazes one with its rightness, but more than this, allows McEwan to transcend the bounds of his style and to leap, with abandon, into new territory. This territory is the possibility of happiness, the continuation of fragile, tenuous life, and even more improbable: love. The gloriousness of this ending, in all its facets--wrapping up Stephen's complicated and mystical realization about his parents, Charles' tragic secret, and Stephen's wife's secret as well, is masterful, even more so because it is so deeply felt, so perfectly crafted.
The nightmare tapestry of the heart-rending loss of a child, which McEwan has woven so beautifully, ends in a splash of golden sunlight. The cautionary nature of all that has come before, about the peril of life and love, has been somewhat redeemed by the continuing, parallel existence of the past. Loss and life exist simultaneously; the past cannot be undone, nor can it be dismissed. Perhaps it is more present and accessible than we ever dreamed, McEwan seems to be hypothesizing in this brilliant novel.