Tuesday, May 26th, 2009...5:50 pm

Just Finished Reading: The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

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“This is really all we’ve got, this increase, this matter of life loving itself; everything else we have has to come from this.”

Somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean this Memorial Day, Ian McEwan cemented himself as my favorite novelist. The Child in Time was the sort of novel that opens you up and makes you feel the human experience in a way that is completely unpleasant yet somehow comforting.

The unpleasantness on this occasion stemmed partly from me trying to clear the lump from my throat and blink back tears while the flight attendant pushed the duty-free cart down the aisle. But it’s also because that sort of openness to human experience makes you recognize vulnerabilities that are hard to confront. This feeling, at least for me, is completely uncomfortable. (Tangent: I also just finished reading this month’s fascinating Atlantic cover story on that longitudinal happiness study which made the point that happiness was often a harder emotion to bear than sadness because it makes you drop your defenses, opening yourself up for injury).

The comfort came from McEwan’s demonstration (showcased in several of his novels) of the ability of inanely normal people to suffer traumatic, life-changing events and come out on the other side with a lucid, utterly poignant but ultimately completely hopeful perspective on human suffering. I am reassured by his faith in humans to make sense and then begin to heal after what could have been decimating experiences. In Saturday it was a home invasion, in Atonement it was the accusation of rape. The Child in Time centers around Stephen, an accidentally successful children’s book author whose 3-year old daughter is kidnapped from him at the grocery store. Over the next two years, Stephen deals with his grief which is compounded by a separation from his wife.

Until the last ten pages, I was content with reading the book as an exploration of the meaning of childhood and parenthood, going along for the ride since I don’t have kids (and I haven’t been one for a pretty long time). As I should have expected, McEwan had different ideas. I was completely taken aback by the ending of the book. I won’t give it away, but there’s a transposition of pain to joy that gives Stephen the insight I quoted above and it’s utterly stunning.

I’ve never lost a child or been accused of rape, but there are certain things we all experience that give us a sense of this despair. I guess the trick is realizing that this is all part of it and figuring out how to plumb the pain for the little nugget that’s always in there looking to be found. Somewhere along the way in my Catholic education, someone told me that prayer is not about asking God for things or to change circumstances. It’s about asking God to help you find the strength you’ll need to face what you’re up against and to find the increase that Stephen discovered.

I’m not sure I’ve been very good at following this advice or appreciating this connection to human experience (I REALLY hate being exposed), but I’m trying to be better which is one reason I started blogging again. What really helps is reading books like this, such good reminders of why I should bother.

1 Comment

  • There are few authors like Ian McEwan who so quickly yank me into their world-created-by-text .

    Except for Saturday. He took a hiatus with Saturday.

    I’ll have to add this one to my list.