BOOK REVIEW / Vanishing cream: 'The Daydreamer' - Ian McEwan: Cape, 8.99 pounds

IN THE dystopic, not-too-distant future that is the setting for Ian McEwan's 1987 novel, The Child in Time, a 49-year-old Tory junior minister regresses to short-trousered, catapult-brandishing boyhood, withdrawing from the world of telegrams and anger to a makeshift treehouse. His middle-aged infantilism is meant to represent what can happen when the virtues of immaturity are prevented by authoritarian codes of child- rearing from being carried over into adulthood.

Sending its pre-pubescent hero off on a fantasy-projection of what life will be like for him when he's 21, the last chapter of The Daydreamer, McEwan's first work of children's fiction, reads like a reassuringly idealised version of how such a transition might be made. On a seaside holiday with his own and a group of other families, young Peter Fortune is suddenly struck by 'something very obvious and terrible': that one day he'll have to leave his playmates and join the circle of grown-ups and their 'endless sitting'.

The book is full of imaginatively rendered metamorphoses (in his daydreams Peter cures the family cat of its jealousy of a visiting baby by swapping bodies with it, and so on). But the culminating transformation which worries him is the one that will happen by stealth and eventually render 'his brilliant, playful eleven-year-old self' as incomprehensible to him as grown-ups are now. The fantasy-projection into adulthood 'solves' this problem by bringing into comic co- existence aspects of Peter that are at different stages of development: the 'cold, falling sensation'; the magical kiss in the forbidden tunnel; and then 'lemonade by the bucket' on the way to viewing Peter's new anti-gravity invention. You never stop having adventures: that is the book's upbeat message.

It would have more force, though, if you didn't feel that McEwan, who was no slouch at piling on the dark and the deviant in his early stories for adults, is here too strenuously engaged in keeping the sweetness-and-light levels high. Fantasists like, say, Billy Liar are usually trying to escape a restrictive or depressed reality. But in The Daydreamer - often to the detriment of drama and moral - McEwan keeps drawing attention to the fundamental niceness of Peter's circumstances. After all, a child can have better reasons for wanting to make his family disappear than that they are untidy. In the chapter where Peter applies vanishing cream to his nearest and dearest, McEwan even has him enumerate their loveable qualities ('She was the only mother he knew who could stand on her head unsupported') seconds before wiping them out. But why not give him a genuine grievance that temporarily obscures his love for them?

There's the sense throughout of a well-meaning adult breathing down the reader's neck and offering, at times, false consolation. In one story, Peter's imagination is drawn to the question of how we can know that we are not dreaming everything. Putting philosophy speedily to practical use, he then manages to rout the school bully by telling him that he doesn't exist. In other words, the power of bullies is just the collective fantasy of the oppressed. Mmm. It's typical of the book's refusal to depart from niceness for long that Peter immediately recognises that he too has been a bully, in making public certain soppy secrets about his adversary. The cloying note he sends in atonement - 'Do you want to play soccer? PS. I've got a teddy and I have to help with the dishes' - suggests the book's fancifulness isn't confined to its daydream episodes.