Friday 15 June 2018

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

The Child in Time was my latest book club read and one of McEwan's earlier works that I had yet to read. For this particular book club gathering we agreed to extend the meeting to include a viewing of the BBC movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald.

I thought it might be interesting to do a before & after type post to compare the two mediums for telling this story.

I finished the book last weekend. During the week I jotted down these thoughts about McEwan's 1987 Whitbread award winning book:

My previous experiences with McEwan helped me to ride through the consistently inconsistent feelings that his books always seem to evoke in me. I find him to be such a frustrating writer - moments of utter brilliance that leave me breathless and wowed followed by rambling, self-indulgent musings about time, memory and love. Normally I love rambling musings about time, memory and love, but McEwan struggles to find the point, any point, for the reader to catch ahold of (at least this reader anyway).

The car crash in The Child in Time had all the early makings of the infamous ballooning accident in Enduring Love, but somehow the scenes featuring the loss of the child left me cold. The pacing and voice wasn't quite right - I couldn't really engage. I fully expected to feel the panic, the fear and the disbelief but instead I was kept firmly at arms length. Perhaps it was McEwan's way of showing us Stephen's way of grieving. He kept busy, searching and questioning. By trying to fix the problem, bloke-style, he kept his grief at bay, sedating it with alcohol and routines.

Meanwhile Julie allowed herself to succumb to her grief. She embraced the grieving process, chick-style, although it also had the same outcome as Stephen's way, in that they both ended up isolated and alone. The difference being that Julie chose her isolation, it was part of her plan to deal with the pain and loss she was suffering.

Stephen floundered his way towards letting go and acceptance, whereas Julie understood that this was exactly the process she was going to have to work through.

There was some weird shit going on with time that almost made this a ghost story or a time travel story or even a homage to Benjamin Button. A dream-like or perhaps nightmarish quality infused the story. Puzzled by the whole Charles and Thelma storyline though.

The links between the loss of a child with governmental child care policy and the innocence of childhood felt rather clumsy to me. As did the comparison between (bad) city life and (good) country life. In the city we saw the breakdown of transport systems, the rise of poor people wearing beggar's badges to identify them and regulate their movements and invasive technology. Politicians practised disinformation and deception on their constituencies, authoritarian ideals were becoming the norm and the weather seemed to be unpredictable. Meanwhile our characters who returned to the country were searching for an innocence and purity of old. Nature acted to comfort and solace our characters. It worked for Julie, but not, ultimately for Charles.

I have no idea what year the book was set in? It felt slightly futuristic, yet old-fashioned as well. The badges for the poor added to this uncertainty. Beggars badges were phased out of the UK a century or so ago. But they provided another example of an authoritarian government. The kind of government that peddles in disinformation & propaganda & nationalistic policy. Sounds remarkably familiar!

Was the PM gay or was the PM a woman? No name or pronouns used. Was this McEwan's political novel, having a go at Thatcherite England?

I enjoyed the happy-ish ending. I didn't need to know the sex of the baby (but I assumed it was a boy - having another girl would have been too painful. I want Stephen & Julie to be able to enjoy this baby without constantly comparing it to the one they lost).


So first - Cumberbatch - excellent choice for Stephen. He did that British, stiff upper lip, slightly weedy, prone to drinking too much when melancholy character so well. However, in the book, I found it hard to care for him beyond the surface empathy that his loss evoked. In the movie, Cumberbatch was able to convey so much more of Stephen's interior life via his gestures and expressions.

Extra scenes helped to connect the dot that were confusing in the book.

The film had to make some visual leaps of faith - they assumed the PM was male. They also made it clear that the new babe was a boy. The extra bits with the ghost-like boy gave the film a narrative cohesion that the book just missed.

In the film Charles refers his role in the Childcare Book as a joke book which gave me a clearer understanding of what his issues may have been. It didn't even occur to me in the book that his childhood may have been overly authoritarian and harsh, I assumed it was more of a mental illness affecting his behaviour, or perhaps I missed that bit?

The film was softer on the separation and distance between Stephen and Julie. They saw each other a number of times and had regular phone contact. In the book they were far more isolated and alone with their sorrows. The book highlighted how they had to work their own stuff out, on their own, so they could come together again at the end, stronger and more grateful. The film suggested they both just needed some space.

No car accident in the film. Why did they leave it out? Why did McEwan include it?

I felt more emotional throughout the film.

The film helped me to make more sense of the book. But the book explored the layers and themes more than the film. The film was a human drama. The book was more about ideas and politics.

The movie is well worth a watch, but pack a tissue.
The book is not my best McEwan, but it's also not my worst.

4/20 #20booksofsummer (winter)
 11℃ in the Blue Mountains
 18℃ in Northern Ireland


  1. Well, you made an excellent comparision book/movie in this review! Gestures, expression...things that are not said speak louder than words in some situations. British stiff upper lip and confronting emotions 'bloke-style' tell this reader so much. Enjoyed reading your thoughts...

    1. Thanks Nancy.
      I'm racing through the reading, but not so much the reviewing, blogging, getting round to everyone, commenting part at the moment.
      I still have two Japan books to finish reviews on plus another post on Tim Winton that has been brewing for some time.
      I can blame the World Cup on some of it :-)

  2. I liked the film mostly for the performances of the lead characters and will, probably, skip the book.


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