Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 26, 2009

The Child in Time, (1987) by Ian McEwan

I should not have started reading this book so late at night: the early chapters are so harrowing that I could not put it down.  I read on and on, drifting in and out of sleep, and read on again the next day and night, utterly exhausted.


My copy was a cancelled library copy, actually a first edition but very battered.  There is nothing about the plot on the blurb so I began it knowing absolutely nothing about it except that McEwan is a very fine writer.  Now, if you Google this title, or seek it out on Amazon, the first thing you will learn is that it begins with the abduction of a child, but I did not know that.  So McEwan’s dry, almost forensic mention on page 1 that Stephen Lewis is always on the lookout for his child came as a shock…

Stephen remained as always, although barely consciously, on the watch for children, for a five year-old girl.  It was more than a habit, for a habit could be broken.  This was a deep disposition, the outline experience had stencilled on character.  It was not principally a search, though it had been an obsessive hunt, and for a long time too.  Two years on, only vestiges of that remained; now it was a longing, a dry hunger.  There was a a biological clock, dispassionate in its unstoppability, which let his daughter go on growing, extended and complicated her simple vocabulary, made her stronger, her movements surer.  The clock, sinewy like a heart, kept faith with an unceasing conditional; she would be drawing, she would be starting to read, she would be losing a milktooth. She would be familiar, taken for granted…

This child, Kate, becomes increasingly real to the reader as Stephen daydreams about her and relives moments of his life with her.  The other events in this book offer brief respite, but are always subservient to the longed-for existence of this child.  The scene where he goes shopping for presents on her birthday and returns to his empty flat to wrap them is heart-rending. No other book I have read has made me catch a sob in my throat at its ending; I so desperately wanted this child to be found.

I will not ruin the experience of reading this book for anyone by writing more.

The Child in Time is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.


  1. Hi Lisa

    I read this many years ago back in our first year as ANZLL and it still is vivid in my memory… with a little help from my reading journal =) I agree a gripping story and as you mention the author gives the reader brief periods of respite which are quite comic and the ending for me was most unexpected.
    This novel was my introduction the the fine writing of McEwan.


    • I still have the lump in my throat from reading about it, and now I know why. McEwan was fighting custody issues at the time and so he knows what the loss of a child feels like.


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