A superb book about every parent's worst nightmare (a child goes missing), but you don't need to be a parent to appreciate it because it is primarily a story of loss, family (is it a couple, parents and children or a patriarchal institution such as the RAF?), distortions in (the perception of) time and reality, and of growing up and of regressing.
Stephen Lewis is a children's author who also sits on a government committee that is meant to produce a handbook on childrearing - to regenerate the UK. He takes his 3 year old daughter, Kate, to the supermarket, where she is abducted. The rest of the story charts the effects on him, his marriage, his relationship with his parents, and his work. His life is marked by reacting to circumstances rather than instigating things and thus he is even more adrift once Kate is lost.
It is full of painful ironies (Stephen making policy about parenthood, yet losing his own child, while a friend effectively gains one) and wonderful imagery: in a lonely flat the "deadly alignment of familiar possessions... the stubborn conspiracy of objects... to remain exactly as they had been"; the committee meeting with "vestigial stateliness and dozy bureaucracy mingling soporifically"; making love "sleepily, inconclusively"; "The lost child was everyone's property. But Simon was alone."; "Nappies proclaimed from diagrammatic metal trees a surrender to new life"; a mother "whose worrying was a subtle form of possessiveness" and, on a train, the “customary search for the loneliest seat”.
Time is elastic, capricious, malleable, parallel and relative. There are episodes where it seems to speed up, slow down, or short circuit. A train leaving London travels "from the past into the present" in an architectural but also metaphorical sense and Stephen's parents condense all their history into souvenirs in a single room. Time slows down, cinematically, in a collision, stretches out in an endless cornfield and "time would stop" without the fantasy of her [Kate's:] continued existence". "Duration shaped itself around the intensity of the event". One of the characters is a physicist who explains something of this, but some incidents are neither explained nor, perhaps, explicable.
It is set in roughly the present day, although it was written in 1987 and you realise how much the world has changed in barely 20 years: there is no mobile phone at a crucial point, public fear of strangers was clearly much less and the tactics of parents and police are very different from the Madeleine McCann case.
Unlike other McEwans I have read, this has touches of magical realism (mainly regarding the nature and experience of time) and has some humorous political satire too (he "hoped to discover what is was they thought in the process of saying it"), but works very well.
It would have been a comfortable 5*, but I disliked the ending, so dropped it to 4*. If he were writing it now, I suspect it would end differently.