BOOKS

A welcome literary invasion

THE CHILD IN TIME By Ian McEwan OUT OF THIS WORLD By Graham Swift ARTIFICIAL FIRE By Angela Carter

John Bemrose April 25 1988
BOOKS

A welcome literary invasion

THE CHILD IN TIME By Ian McEwan OUT OF THIS WORLD By Graham Swift ARTIFICIAL FIRE By Angela Carter

John Bemrose April 25 1988

A welcome literary invasion

THE CHILD IN TIME By Ian McEwan OUT OF THIS WORLD By Graham Swift ARTIFICIAL FIRE By Angela Carter

A year ago British writers Ian McEwan, Graham Swift and Angela Carter were strangers to most Canadians. But they and other English novelists are rapidly becoming known on this side of the Atlantic as domestic publishers increasingly turn to the practice of buying separate rights for the best foreign books. Last month McClelland and Stewart Ltd. released its own edition of Carter’s story collection Artificial Fire. Meanwhile, Penguin Canada has just published Swift’s novel of remembrance, Out of This World, and Lester & Orpen Dennys recently issued McEwan’s superb parable of childhood, The Child In Time. They are the latest offerings from three authors considered to be among the finest younger talents in Britain. But before the recent shift in publishing practices, their unique voices would have sounded only a feeble echo in Canada.

This country’s past isolation from much contemporary foreign fiction was a result of long-established traditions. Foreign publishers and agents have generally treated Canada as a minor extension of the American or British markets, and only a few copies of titles from abroad trickled into the country through a Canadian distributor—unless the books were written by such worldfamous authors as John Fowles or Anthony Burgess. But now, according to literary agent Lucinda Vardey, there is a new awareness that an expanding and increasingly sophisticated Canadian readership can create healthy profits for many foreign books. Vardey, who helped to pioneer the trend of buying Canadian rights, said that they give Canadian publishing houses “a bigger stake in their foreign authors.” She added, “Publishers are more likely to bring them in for publicity tours—which gives Canadian readers a chance to know the personalities behind the books.”

McEwan, Swift and Carter, all of whom employ Vardey as their Canadian agent, have come to Canada recently to promote their books. The three writers’ work ranges from Carter’s darkly baroque romances to the pithy, historically focused work of Swift. The most impressive is McEwan, whose The Child In Time is I centred on a terrible £ event that is every parz ent’s nightmare: the kid£ napping of a child. When t children’s author Ste1 phen Lewis goes shop§, ping with his three-year-

old daughter, Kate, his attention strays for a moment and she is snatched away by someone he never sees. A hectic search yields nothing.

McEwan’s penetrating and horrifying description of that traumatic morning would make a fine opening for a thriller. But the author has something much more substantial in mind. His main concern is the ongoing emotional effects on the parents, especially Stephen. With an extraordinary combination of objectivity and empathy, he traces Stephen’s progress through an anguished time. His wife, Julie, leaves him, and he spends most of his time in their darkened and neglected apartment, watching television. Out in the street, he continues to watch for Kate, sustaining himself with the fantasy that somehow, somewhere, she is still living and growing. “Without the fantasy of her continued existence he was lost, time would stop,” writes McEwan. “He was the father of an invisible child.”

Like other elements in the novel— Stephen’s service on a dull government committee studying childhood, and the descent of a close friend into madness—Kate’s disappearance points to McEwan’s central theme: the lost child in everyone. Kate becomes a metaphor for the vanished freshness of youth. The book suggests that only by getting back some of the glorious vitality of child-

hood can people live to the fullest. In his deeply moving and unexpectedly optimistic conclusion, McEwan shows Stephen and Julie accomplishing that very difficult task of bringing a new, more joyous meaning to their lives. Although flawed by occasional awkwardness, The Child In Time is one of those rare books combining intelligence with potent feeling. It could well become a classic.

Graham Swift’s novel Out of This World also deals with characters who

must burrow into their pasts in order to restore meaning to shattered lives. When the book opens in England in 1982, Harry Beech, a retired photojournalist in his early 60s, is consumed by memories of his dead father, Robert. Harry’s entire career has been a reaction to Robert’s life as a successful munitions manufacturer. By taking pictures of war—including the conflict in Vietnam—Harry has tried to inspire abhorrence for the kind of devastation upon which his family’s wealth was founded. Meanwhile, he is ignorant of the devastation that his frequent absences have brought to his daughter, Sophie. She spends her share of the novel talking to her New York City psychiatrist about her bleak and lonely past. Sophie’s doting paternal grandfather is the closest thing to a loving father that she has ever had, and his death in a terrorist bomb blast 10 years earlier has devastated her.

As in his fine earlier novel Waterland, Swift tries to show how private lives are bound up with the events of history. But while his competence at interweaving the themes is impressive, his novel lacks impact. The first-person reminiscences of both Harry and Sophie are too sketchy to give their past real substance. As a result, Out Of This World remains a very cerebral book that describes strong emotion while failing to communicate it.

Occasionally, Angela Carter falls into the same trap in Artificial Fire, a collection of early stories and one short novel that she has recently rewritten. At times her ornate prose seems to exist for itself alone: certain stories claim depths of feeling that they simply do not possess. But usually Carter’s lurid yet intelligent romanticism manages to connect. In her fable of sexuality, “Reflections,” the narrator wanders into a strange land ruled by an androgynous monster whose job it is to knit the fabric of reality. % destroying the creature, the narrator—in a conclusion at once riveting and repulsive—destroys life itself.

The short novel, Love, is a more conventional tale of two brothers, Lee and Buzz, and the young madwoman whom they both love, Annabel. Their contrasting personalities reflect deep divisions in the society around them. Like both McEwan and Swift, Carter is as concerned with making socially relevant metaphors as she is with telling a story. That dimension is currently more common in British fiction than in the more literal-minded literature of Canada: one more reason for Canadian readers to be grateful for the new influx of fine writing from abroad.

JOHN BEMROSE