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Is clever enough?
on 15 January 2007
Ian McEwan is like champagne. In fact not just any champagne, but the most expensive champagne on the menu. He is superior, he exudes class, and he is the preferred taste of the refined.
In simple terms A Child in Time is a novel about child abduction, and a parents response to that. At a deeper level the story is hinged upon the two key themes of childhood and time, and is laced with satirical observations of modern society. "In every child there is a hidden adult and in every adult there is a hidden child" is a pivotal observation placed early on in the novel and one which repeatedly returned to. There is Kate, the child that disappears one day in a supermarket and held forever more as a child in her parents minds as they are robbed of her future, Charles, the adult who regresses to childhood in a breakdown, the surreal experience that Stephen, the father, has of floating back in time watching his parents discuss whether or not to have him aborted. Time, McEwan is saying, is not a constant. Time is malleable.
The plot itself is by no means the defining reason for reading this book. Character development is not done by McEwan for its own sake and therefore you never feel particularly sympathetic towards any of his characters. In every character detail (and one thing that Ian McEwan is renowned for is his almost exhaustive attention to detail) there an agenda. Every action or experience of any character is related to a theme. Children. Time. Children. Time. Every sentence is cleverly carved for achieve maximum literary effect. Even the structure of the text has a purpose as the observant reader will notice clever shifts between conditional, perfect, and imperfect tenses to demonstrate passage or insurmountability of time.
Essentially then this novel is clever. The plot is middling, the characters are average. But the overall package is clever. My problem though with this book, and in fact with McEwan in general, I just don't always need clever. I don't need to be reading a book and pouncing on paragraphs spotting on literary devices. Sometimes I just want to be reading a book because quite simply I am desperate to know what happens at the end.
Which is the thing with champagne isn't it? You would almost never turn it down. You even feel a little bit special to be drinking it. It makes you feel worthy. Yet, just sometimes, maybe you don't want champagne, you just want half a lager.