Monday, 25 September 2017

The Child In Time

I am a huge Ian McEwan fan and have read nearly all of his books. But The Child In Time is definitely one of his less penetrable works. I first read it many years ago and spent a lot of it feeling nervously perplexed, as it was just - for want of better words - a bit weird. There was too much on the physics of time and place for my impractical, unsciency little brain to cope with. The looking through windows into the past and future at parents and children just didn't gel with McEwan's normally brilliantly everyday, realist and remarkably detailed settings.

I then re-read The Child In Time with my book group a couple of years ago, and found myself in a different place - that of a parent. A parent angry about the state of education for our young children. And a parent who can better imagine the total horror of a child abduction and its worst nightmare scenario. The panic, the grief, and the unanswered questions if the child is never found.

The television adaptation had the latter as its focus. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly McDonald played Stephen and Julie, the parents of Kate, who aged four was taken from a supermarket and to this day has never been seen again. As a result, their marriage has crumbled and they have each retreated into their separate worlds. She has run away to a beachside cottage, where she teaches piano and, in her words, "gets by". He is a children's writer, struggling with a lack of words for a work about a boy who wants to be a fish. Stephen writes in front of an aquarium and practises holding his breath underwater in the bath.

He is also part of a government focus group working on a new children's education policy, sitting for hours in stuffy meetings, disgusted with how out of touch the civil servants and ministers appear to be with young people's lives. He still lives in the family's London flat, where he leaves a note for his daughter on the front door every time he goes out, in case she comes home. He has kept his daughter's bedroom as a shrine, and he leaves wrapped presents under the tree at Christmas. "I'm not mad," he tells a friend, but at times he is definitely teetering over the brink of madness. He sees his daughter mirrored in other people in random places - on a beach, in a school. The latter is more worrying, as he manages to break into the building and enter a classroom to talk to the girl he has seen. The book was written prior to the horrors of Dunblane, when school security was more lax. But nonetheless, even in today's more modern setting, he is treated only by kindness and understanding by the staff, and he is given time, the time of the title, to gather himself and move back on into the world. As much as he can. How can you ever really move on after such a terrible event?

He has friends to look after him, Thelma and Charles. Charles is his publisher and also a government minister, but he too needs to retreat from the world, to retire. Only it is into an eternal childhood that he goes, the boyhood fantasies of Arthur Ransome and Enid Blyton, on a perpetual adventure in the woods. He climbs trees and builds dens, lays traps and pretends to shoot. He has the energy of a toddler, covered in mud and bruises, and a wildness behind his eyes as he clips off his greying pubic hair. Don't we all want to return to our youth, to the innocence of childhood? Don't we all fight now for our children to enjoy that innocence too - to let our kids be in fact kids? Isn't our current government doing all it can to rob our children of that freedom to play, as they force them to neaten their handwriting and learn about fractions and fronted adverbials at an age when really they should be rolling in that self-same mud and climbing those self-same trees? Will they all be like Charles in middle age, trying to live the childhood that was taken away from them by obsessional testing and pointless arbitrary standards? I hope not. But something needs to be done.

Thelma is a much lesser character in the television adaptation. In the book she is a physicist with much to say, whereas on screen she just quietly tolerates Charles' regressive foray, ringing a handbell at dinner and bedtime so that he knows to come home. Until the day he doesn't, and Stephen finds him hanging from a tree.
Climbing benches on London's South Bank
The settings of the film are familiar McEwan territory - London, the South Coast, the Kent countryside. Stephen walks through Whitehall, crosses the Thames from Embankment tube, then walks along the river to the National Theatre. He catches the Tube at Maida Vale. Not so much this time in McEwan's native Fitzrovia, the setting of Saturday, where he describes characters I used to see on my lunchbreak from my job on Carburton Street, notably the lady feeding the birds in Fitzroy Square.

One of my daughter's favourite games is hide and seek, and one of her favourite places to play it is in a clothes shop. She treats the racks of dresses and trousers like topiary bushes, skirting round the skirts, burying herself beneath the rails. And when I can't find her I am casually hyperventilating mum, forever remembering this story of The Child In Time, barely able to conceal the rising panic within. I try to convince myself that nothing bad will happen, that she will always come if I call her, though it's hard to flatten my shrill intonation when I do. I want to let my daughter have fun but have to protect her from harm. There is the dilemma of not wanting to scare her unnecessarily, while accepting my own duty of care. She is innocent, but others in the world less so. She has to play, but please, please, please let her get out of the Next jumpers section alive. Rationality must prevail. "Come on, it's time to go." And breathe....

And "Keep breathing," Stephen says to Julie at the end, in the maternity ward he has managed to barge into as easily as the school. The lost Kate is gaining an accidental brother, a brother Julie has seen through her window on to the beach and Stephen has just glimpsed on the Tube. The couple who could not live together or apart have found the end of their rainbow journey. Hope has befallen them at last. Though the poignant gap of the missing girl will never be filled.

South Bank rainbow above the QEH, London 2016

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