An event occurs in the first chapter of this 1987 novel by Ian McEwan so horrific that the mind reels: Stephen Lewis, unloading groceries from his cart onto the conveyor belt at the supermarket, turns to discover that his three-year old daughter Kate is nowhere to be seen. It quickly becomes clear that she is not simply out of sight somewhere, around a corner or down an aisle; she is well and truly missing, she has been abducted, and she may never be seen again. Fellow shoppers search, the police arrive, bystanders are interviewed, and then Stephen walks home to tell his wife Julie of this unimaginable catastrophe.
Stephen and Julie drift apart, as understandably often happens to couples forced to bear this too-heavy burden of loss, guilt, recrimination, and fear. Their strategies to try to cope diverge: initially Stephen engages in frantic activity, putting up posters, offering rewards, speaking to anyone who will listen, showing photographs, while Julie sits in an armchair, motionless with grief. Eventually Julie moves to a cottage in the country, while Stephen's frenetic pace slows to a stop, and he slouches on the couch in his pajamas, watching game shows and drinking scotch. How to live with a loss such as this?
I think of this book every time the Ontario media seizes on the disappearance of another local child. Like in 2003, when nine-year-old Cecilia Zhang disappeared from her suburban Toronto bedroom one night. Her distraught parents must have heard the conventional wisdom, that if a snatched child is not recovered within the hour, she will probably never be found alive, but they continued to hope and plead for the return of their only daughter. They were doubtless devastated, if not totally surprised, when her skeletal remains were found some five months later, but perhaps felt a small, cold kernel of consolation in knowing, at last, that she was dead. And then when ten-year-old Holly Jones disappeared that same year, walking a friend home down her street. Her body was found the very next day, in garbage bags on Toronto Island: she had been raped and murdered in less than an hour.*
But what if a body is never found? I read an interview with an old man who recounted how, decades later, he still scans the faces of passing middle-aged women, looking for clues that will reveal the now-grown daughter, disappeared as a teen. And so it is for Stephen: two years on he imagines he sees Kate in schoolyards, and only after his obsessive desire subsides does he realize the nose is all wrong, the mannerisms nothing like his daughter's.
But this book is about more than just devastating loss. It's also a meditation on love, and time, and politics.
During a strange and euphoric hallucination Stephen sees his parents, young and as-yet unmarried, engaged in a tense conversation in a pub; his mother, in failing health, one day reveals what happened between her and his father on that pivotal day. He visits his wife and feels the old intimacy and love, only to have it ebb as his self-absorption reasserts itself. As an author of children's books, Stephen sits on the Subcommittee on Reading and Writing, an offshoot of the Commmission on Child Care; he welcomes the structure the regular but tedious subcommittee meetings give to his otherwise empty life and chooses to ignore rumours that the whole commission is a sham, the final report already written. Around him Britain seems to be crumbling: an unusually hot dry summer, then a viciously cold winter, threaten the lives of the licensed beggars who congregate and harrass passersby.
This is a lovely and strange and complicated and poignant book, but ultimately a joyful one, and I highly recommend it.
*Cecilia's accused killer, Min Chen, a visa student, is in custody awaiting trial. Michael Briere, a neighbour of Holly's, admitted his guilt, so there was no trial; he is serving a life sentence because we don't kill people for that here.