Top critical review
Good, but not up to the level of McEwan's masterwork
on July 3, 2000
Ian McEwan, THE CHILD IN TIME (Penguin, 1987)
Something happened to a number of bang-up in-for-the-kill horror writers in the early to mid eighties. I'm still trying to figure out what. Patrick McGrath, who'd given the world some of its most wonderfully gut-wrenching tales in _Blood and Water_, started writing slick, witty novels that came to just this side of horror. Clive Barker started writing fantasy. Anne Rivers Siddons gave us one of the definitive modern haunted house novels and then started churning out "women's novels."
And then we have Ian McEwan.
McEwan's first novel, _The Cement Garden_, is one of the most unpredictably horrific novels in the last half-century. It's a thing of absolute beauty, comparable to Koja's _The Cipher_, Deveraux's _Deadweight,_ and a handful of other horror novels that push the envelope so far that the reader will have second thoughts about ever reading another novel by the author. Then McEwan dropped out of sight for a while, released a second novel I haven't been able to track down (so this transformation may be earlier than I suspect), and finally got major-label recognition with this, his third full-length offering.
The Child in Time is the story of a couple whose daughter is abducted in broad daylight in a crowded supermarket. The two of them react differently to the disappearance as time goes on with no ransom note, and the inevitable breakup occurs. We phase in right there, not long after the breakup, and follow the husband, Stephen, as he tries to put his life back together while simultaneously watching his best friend come apart.
I want to savage this book. I want to get McEwan back for taking one of the most promising careers in horror fiction and turning it into a career writing slice-of-life novels that culminated in a Booker Prize. But I can't do it. The Child in Time is in no way a horror novel, of
course, and it doesn't really classify as a mystery, but it's certainly not a slice of life novel. It combines drama, a little mystery, and a sense of the detached in much the same way as Graham Swift's masterwork, Waterland. And it's quite readable. But fans of earlier McEwan will always be waiting for the shoe to drop (preferably weighted down with something, and on someone's head to make that satisfying splattering noise)... and it never does.
It's good for what it is, I just wanted it to be something else. And I can't fault McEwan for that. Still, I suggest starting off with The Cement Garden to get the full view of McEwan's considerable writing power before taking on this much more minimal work. ***