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Book Review: The Children Act

Book Review: The Children Act

| On 20, Oct 2014

Ian McEwan plunges us into the world of family law in his latest offering The Children Act, in which a High Court judge must put her moral compass to the test as she presides over a life or death case involving Adam, a disarmingly wise teenager in the full grip of his faith.

The novel’s events unfold through the eyes of shrewd, esteemed High Court judge Fiona Maye, who spends her days wading through the messy business of divorcing couples and custody battles. She is called to rule over the case of a near-adult Jehovah’s Witness who is refusing a blood transfusion, and is quickly drawn into a moral quandry over the sanctity of life versus personal autonomy.

McEwan, a former Man Booker prize winner and one of the UK’s leading figures in contemporary literature, says in an interview with the Sydney Morning-Herald,

“My suggestion is that we are all somewhere along that spectrum of unreasonableness; we do things, crazy things to ourselves and [don’t] always act rationally in our best interests.”

This is echoed at several points throughout the novel, as the novel’s strong opening sees her extract herself, calm and businesslike, from her own humiliating domestic collapse as her virile, academic husband grants her an ultimatum and then flees to a younger woman’s bed.images

Perhaps it was perverse to discover in this sudden interruption a promise of freedom, Fiona muses when considering the case. On the other side of the city a teenager confronted death for his own or his parents’ beliefs. It was not her business or mission to save him, but to decide what was reasonable and lawful. She would have liked to see this boy for herself, remove herself from a domestic morass, as well as from the courtroom, for an hour or two, take a journey, immerse herself in the intricacies, fashion a judgement formed by her own observations.

McEwan is known for his delight in ‘playing at’ other professions through his novels, as was evident to great effect in his acclaimed work Saturday, in which he shadowed a brain surgeon for two years to learn more about his protagonist’s craft. He also did this in Solar, a novel centred around a climate change scientist with events based off a trip to the Norwegian Artic McEwan made in 2005. This is just as effective in The Children Act, and even those with no prior interest in legal matters will find themselves swept up in the minute details included of Fiona’s past cases.

Having made life-saving decisions in previous instances, Fiona is often still plagued by guilt in quieter moments as the extent of the power she is afforded strikes her. The Children Act, McEwan’s thirteenth novel, reveals an intimate characterisation of Fiona and the brilliant yet fragile Adam, feverishly in love with the idea of martyrdom, and is a steady showcase of what McEwan does best.

Photo credit: Dan Cox on Flickr, Goodreads.com