Nicholas Spice

  • The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
    Cape, 220 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 224 02499 X
  • The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch
    Chatto, 601 pp, £11.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 7011 3251 5

A Labour victory in the 1987 British General Election would have been a good thing for The Book and the Brotherhood and a disaster for The Child in Time. As it is, with Mrs Thatcher set to complete at least 13 years in office, Iris Murdoch may now be thought to look a little out of touch with the times, addressing herself to a danger – the destructive beauty of the fanatic left-wing soul – that we have, for the time being at least, left behind. Meanwhile McEwan, setting his novel several years into the future of the Thatcherite epoch, that timeless ‘on and on’ of which our leader herself has spoken, seems especially prescient and up-to-the-minute. Such are the risks of writing political fiction in democratic societies. In this instance, McEwan stood to lose far more than Murdoch has in fact lost.

Mrs Thatcher is not named in The Child in Time, but she is clearly intended by the figure of the Prime Minister, a 65-year-old woman with a voice ‘pitched somewhere between a tenor’s and an alto’s’, old-fashioned ideas on the upbringing of children and a deep scorn for the railway network. The Britain she governs bears a plausible relation to the Britain we live in now. It is a soulless place. Notions of public welfare have succumbed to the dominant culture of enterprise and profit. Public services barely function. Schools are being sold off. Houses are in short supply. Even nature has had to meet productivity targets. The Parliamentary opposition is ‘enfeebled’, the press and the administration have been co-opted, the police have guns, the Forestry Commission has run amok.

McEwan hates Thatcherism, but he has not exaggerated its potential for awfulness. The idea that Mrs Thatcher might think Britain should become self-sufficient in wood is the novel’s only implausible flight of fancy, and it is imaginatively a good one. The image of the British countryside replaced by conifer plantations conveys the banality of Thatcherism and its meanness of spirit, and it lends the novel a touch of nightmare, a closed-in atmosphere within which the author’s humane values can the more effectively be felt to struggle for breath.

The author’s humane values are looked after by Stephen Lewis, celebrated children’s book writer and member of the Parmenter Sub-Committee on Reading and Writing, one of 14 committees detailed to report back to the Official Commission on Childcare, ‘known to be a pet concern of the Prime Minister’s.’ Stephen is on the Parmenter Committee because his former publisher, Charles Darke, is now a junior minister in the government and a pet concern of the Prime Minister’s. Two years previously, Stephen’s three-year-old daughter Kate was abducted in a supermarket, and he is still in a state of shock. At home, he sits in front of the TV and drinks. In committee sessions his concentration is poor and he drifts into daydreams, rehearsing the events of the terrible morning when Kate was snatched and remembering how the subsequent shock and grief broke up his marriage with Julie.

The skilful exposition of The Child in Time, dovetailing thoughts and memories into the continuum of present events, is typical of the professional way that McEwan handles his material in the novel. The book is about many things: about loss and its effect upon love, about the nature of childhood and how adulthood betrays it, about being a parent and being one’s parents’ child, about the mysteries and magic of time. These themes weave in and out of a narrative that spans nine or ten months between summer and early spring. During this time Stephen Lewis must go through a series of intense experiences, leading to a climax when, within a matter of hours, he is visited by the Prime Minister, is sent out into the night to retrieve the half-frozen corpse of Charles Darke, discovers that Julie is pregnant with their next child and then delivers it. Stephen’s progress towards acceptance of his loss and reconciliation with Julie is represented as a process in which he is the passive, but sensitive recipient of gifts from a providence benignly devoted to guiding him back to happiness. These gifts include a mysterious vision in the ‘countryside’, when Stephen is on his way to visit Julie and conceive the baby that will bring them new life. Time warps, and through the window of a country pub Stephen sees his parents at the time of their courtship. Later, detailed questioning of his mother reveals to Stephen that he has experienced himself as a foetus, or rather the spirit of a foetus, and that when he saw his mother in the pub she was also seeing him, a vision that decided her against having him aborted.

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