Dark Art

Dark Art

Jefferson Chase examines Ian McEwan's use of whisky as emotional crutch in his novel The Child in Time

Whisky & Culture | 13 Jul 2003 | Issue 32 | By Jefferson Chase

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Ian McEwan is not only one of Britain’s most highly lauded contemporary writers, but the one most fascinated by horrific, perverse scenarios. So I can’t help imagining that he was listening to The Clash’s London Calling, specifically the song Lost in the Supermarket, when he came up with the idea for his 1987 breakthrough novel.The Child in Time is about a children’s books writer, Stephan Lewis, whose three year- old daughter mysteriously disappears while out shopping with him.The plot is every parent’s nightmare, and in typically uncompromising McEwan fashion, the child is never found, and the mystery never solved. This leaves the hero bereaved – and unable to grieve.It may have been the freakishly good summer, or the Scotch he drank heavily from late morning on, which made him feel better than he knew he really was, but Stephan honestly did not mind that life on earth was to continue.A lesser writer would have plunged the protagonist into dramatic despair, self recrimination or rage. What McEwan describes is post-trauma lethargy. The glass of neat Scotch Stephan Lewis repeatedly sips while watching game shows is both an expression of helpless bewilderment and an attempt at consolation. Alcohol is here, as so often in real life, as a kind of protective cocoon.Not even growing estrangement from his wife can force the unhappy hero to reengage with the world before he’s ready.There was nothing to be shared. Julie had lost weight and cut her hair short, She was reading mystical or sacred texts – St. John of the Cross, Blake’s longer poems, Lao-tzu. Her pencilled annotations crowded the margins. She worked hours each day at a Bach partita. The rasp of double-stopped notes, the spiralling frenzy of semiquavers warned him away. For his part he made the first approaches to a serious drinking habit and indulged the books of his adolescence, reading of unencumbered, solitary men whose troubles were the world’s … If there was love it was buried beyond their reach.It’s rare to find a writer with such a keen eye for detail and the discipline to keep his prose so taut. One of the frustrating, if intriguing, aspects of The Child in Time is that this style also keeps us at a distance from the hero, just as he keeps himself at a distance from his tragedy with generic, unnamed whisky.Stephan finally emerges from his emotional coma after a second tragedy. An urgent call for help from the wife of a friend who has regressed into a bizarre second childhood summons the hero to the country. What he finds there leaves him in need of a stiff drink: “Do they put salt in this?” he asked. She looked puzzled and he did not repeat the question. All the same, after a pause she nodded. Holding the glass in two hands, she went up to the room along Stephan’s route. She kept her back to him while she drank. “You ought to know,” she said at last, still without turning, “this isn’t a surprise. He tried it in London, more than once. I thought coming here would be a reprieve. In fact, it was a postponement.”Stephan’s friend has committed suicide; his task is to drag the body in from the woods and bear witness to another’s grief. It is this event, as absurd and senseless as his own tragedy, which resuscitates the hero’s emotional life. Significantly, the whisky in this scene has a specific taste, unlike the generic stuff with which the hero drowns his sorrows on his couch. The saltiness of what is presumably Springbank foreshadows the tears that Stephan will shed, as the novel proceeds on to an unlikely happy ending. Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time is available in paperback from Picador
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