The tricks of chance play a major role in the novels of Ian McEwan. In Saturday, Henry Perowne is suddenly caught in the web of an automobile accident. In Enduring Love a man falls to his death from an airborne balloon. And in The Child in Time, a three year-old child suddenly disappears by her father’s side at a supermarket.
“The checkout girl was already at work, the fingers of one had flickering over the keypad while the other drew Stephen’s items toward her. As he took the salmon from the cart, he glanced down at Kate and winked. She copied him, but clumsily, wrinkling her nose and closing both eyes. He set the fish down and asked the girl for a shopping bag. She reached under a shelf and pulled one out. He took it and turned. Kate was gone.”
Stephen spends days searching for Kate, he knocks on doors, posts signs, walks the streets, notifies the police, all to no avail. Kate is gone, perhaps kidnapped by a stranger, no one ever finds out. Stephen’s wife, Julie is stricken with grief, remains at home, and retreats further and further away from Stephen. Nothing he does can comfort her. Their marriage unravels and Julie moves to an isolated cottage in the country, while Stephen spends his day in a solitary routine of drinking, television watching and daydreaming.
“Now there was no mutual consolation, no touching, no love. Their old intimacy, their habitual assumption that they were on the same side, was dead. They remained huddled over their separate losses, and unspoken resentments began to grow…The loss had driven them to the extremes of their personalities.”
Much of the remaining portion of the novel takes place in Stephen’s recollections of Kate’s life, his youth, and to the future world he imagines for Kate. And here we begin to see what it is that McEwan is trying to describe, namely, the nature of time. His physicist friend tells him that there is no absolute time, no independent entity, only our weak understanding of it. Yet through memory Stephen is able to unhinge time, to transport himself to times past and times future and in the process they become for him time present.
Stephen imagines Kate growing up; he refers to it as “the time that should have been hers.” McEwan writes, “Kate’s growing up had become the essence of time itself…Without the fantasy of her continued existence he was lost, time would stop.”
During a visit to Julie’s cottage in the country, Stephen finds himself transported to time past as he observes a conversation between his courting parents in which they are discussing whether or not to abort him. Later he learns from his mother that the conversation did in fact take place at the very pub Stephen was passing by.
Stephen’s best friend, originally the publisher responsible for his great success at a writer of children’s stories, now on a path to becoming Prime Minister, moves out to the country with his wife and regresses to a state of childlike eccentricity.
“He wanted the security of childhood, the powerlessness, the obedience, and also the freedom that goes with it, freedom from money, decisions, plans, demands. He used to say he wanted to escape from time, from appointments, schedules, deadlines. Childhood to him was timelessness; he talked about it as though it were a mystical state.”
Over the course of time Julie and Stephens wounds healed. “Being alone by choice can make you very clear-headed… I had to stop running after her in my mind. I had to stop aching for her, expecting her at the front door, seeing her in the woods or hearing her voice whenever I boiled the kettle. I had to go on loving her, but I had to stop desiring her. For that I needed time.”
Some time after Stephen had visited her, Julie becomes pregnant and this gives them a chance to imagine a future, a future together, to have their second chance as it were. In a review of The Child in Time, Michael Byrne writes, “McEwan holds out love as the only human force equal to time. Twice upon a time huddled around their newborn in its first moments of life, Stephen and Julie renew their commitment to each other and pay homage to the awful powers of Love and Time.”