- Time and Trauma in The Child in Time
*Winner of the Silberger Prize from the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute
In a provocative interview some years ago with Adam Begley, Ian McEwan narrated an anecdote that ended with a question most of his readers at the time would have readily asked as well:
In 1986 I was at the Adelaide literary festival where I read the scene from The Child in Time in which the little girl is stolen from a supermarket […] As soon as I was done, Robert Stone got to his feet and delivered a most passionate speech. It really seemed to come from the heart. He said, "Why do we do this? Why do writers do this, and why do readers want it? Why do we reach into ourselves to find the worst thing that can be thought?(Begley, 2002)1
Known already for a host of fictions depicting perverse and traumatic scenes that shocked his readers, McEwan himself attempted an answer to this intriguing question:
I still don't have a clear answer. I fall back on the notion of the test or investigation of character, and of our moral nature. As [Henry] James famously asked, What is incident but the illustration of character? Perhaps we use these worst cases to gauge our own moral reach. And perhaps we need to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.(Begley, 2002, emphasis added)2 [End Page 673]
It is that statement that I would like to parse and pursue, by looking more particularly at the ways in which the imaginary in The Child in Time (1987) plays out, and plays with, the fears it evokes, often playing with the reader as well.
Near the opening of the novel, Stephen Lewis, a writer of children's literature and the novel's third person point of view, recalls the worst thing that has happened to him—the sudden disappearance of his three year old daughter Kate two years earlier while they were shopping in a supermarket. A radical break in the flow of ordinary life that has since broken up his marriage, this traumatic event, depicted with all the dreadful clarity of detail and durational distortion common to traumatic memory, has distorted Stephen's relation to time itself. The subsequent narrative traces the effects of this trauma on Stephen as he wanders through a present-time made unreal by his loss.
McEwan himself justified his portrayal of moments of crisis as a way
of exploring how we might withstand, or fail to withstand, an extreme experience, what moral qualities and questions are brought forward, how we live with the consequences of our decisions, how memory torments, what time does, what resources we have to fall back on.(Begley, 2002)
While no one could argue with his rationale—that extreme experiences test character and illuminate the ethical and psychological dimensions of our lives—the remark that his fictional crises may have repeatedly played out his own fears "as a form of hopeful exorcism," suggests that McEwan is driven by an unconscious repetition compulsion to exercise as well as exorcise his demons, a compulsion that has worked well for him as a writer.
Indeed, as McEwan remarked, The Child in Time was the first of a series of novels to employ a traumatizing scene as its opening gambit:
At the time this was hardly a conscious choice or a systematic program; it was simply how it came out in a number of novels, beginning with this one. And of course, these [End Page 674] scenes […] offered attractive fictional possibilities in themselves […] They also offered a means of exerting a hold over the reader.(Begley, 2002)
Although placed as an afterthought, McEwan's desire to exert "a hold over the reader" is, I would argue, a crucial element in his grounding of a number of his novels, even before The Child in Time, in some terrible event. And exert a hold he has done, becoming one of the leading British novelists of his generation. Clearly, McEwan's realistic depiction of psychic trauma has been an effective lure in capturing...