Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Childhood is a privilege

Ian McEwan is hit or miss with me. I've loved a couple of his books and hated a couple others, despite their reputations or promising descriptions. The Child in Time is a hit.

I deliberately stayed away from this book for years, because of its premise: a three-year-old child is snatched out from under her father at the supermarket.

I'm finally past, or at least at terms with, a lot of the anxieties of parenthood. Somehow my child has survived my parenting skills — she is healthy and happy and 9. I guess I feel she's too big, too much her own person, too fully present, to be stolen away when I'm not looking. Not that I'm not vigilant with regard to her safety, but after years of experience and practice I've relinquished some of the paralyzingly all-consuming worry — we've made it this far, we have some perspective, and some measure of control.

Stephen Lewis, on the other hand, has undergone a traumatic event, is not in control, and has trouble getting a grip.

Then he returned to the window. Traffic, steady drizzle, shoppers waiting patiently at the crossing — it was a wonder that there could be so much movement, so much purpose, all the time. He himself had none at all.

As you can well imagine, the event inevitably had a negative impact on his marriage too.

Fittingly, Stephen is a writer of children's books (rather accidently — he'd intended his first novel as serious literature for grown-ups) and also sits on a committee, the Official Commission on Child Care, which gives rise to some serious reflection on the nature of childhood — what it is he'd missed in his upbringing, what he's missing out on as a parent in the absence of a child, and the state that a disturbed friend of his is regressing to.

"It was not always the case that a large minority comprising the weakest memebers of society wore special clothes, were freed from the routines of work and of many constraints on their behavior, and were able to devote much of their time to play. It should be remembered that childhood is not a natural occurrence. There was a time when children were treated like small adults. Childhood is an invention, a social construct, made possible by society as it increased in sophistication and resource. Above all, childhood is a privilege. No child as it grows older should be allowed to forget that its parents, as embodiments of society, are the ones who grant this privilege, and do so at their own expense."

— from The Authorized Child-Care Handbook, HMSO

The other thing this book reflects on (quite obviously — note the title) is time — the memory of it, the physics of it, and the weird experience of it. For example, there's a car accident, and the seconds play out in slow motion — we've all had experiences like this.

There are in fact some other wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey moments in this novel that make the whole thing something other a depressing exercise in stark and emotional realism.

Lucky for us, Stephen is friends with a theoretical physicist who imposes some sanity and order on his experiences but also, as scientists are wont to do, remains curiously detached. Like, to understand a thing fully, you have to stand outside of it. And if you're in it, you've no hope of grasping it.

[Helena's asking me right now what I'm writing about, so we're talking about time and how summer lasts forever when you're a kid and she's so bored.]

Beyond its gut-wrenching premise, The Child in Time feels emotionally true, and as it progresses it reveals rich and subtle layers of meaning. I recommend it, but not for new parents.
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