Perhaps it’s best I read The Children Act in the space of a day, curled on my sofa. Otherwise I might have been spied in my favorite café purring like a contented cat, stroked by Ian McEwan’s sublime prose.
Words adore Ian McEwan, submitting readily to his firm but empathetic hand. They are sleek and gorgeous dancers to his choreography; alone, the words are admirable, but under his direction they assume nuance and strength. His works never fail to take my breath away. It is a comfort to know, regardless of the story I am about to witness, that I will be treated with the utmost respect by an author who assumes I revere language and composition as much as he does. It is because of writers like Ian McEwan that I have come to cherish the art of writing.
But even the most skilled and erudite writing cannot save a flawed story. Fortunately, this author takes his craft as seriously as his art.
In the vein of Saturday, The Children Act imposes an ethical dilemma on a member of the élite caste of British society and places its protagonist in crisis. In this most recent of McEwan’s thirteen novels, Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in Britain’s Family Division, hears a case of a young Jehovah's Witness with leukemia whose parents refuse to allow a critical medical procedure. His religion forbids blood transfusions and the hospital has appealed to the High Court to force the treatment on the dying patient. Time is running out—Fiona, or 'My Lady' as she is addressed in court, has only a few days to hear the case and render her decision before it is too late to save the young man’s life.
Complicating an already impossible situation is Adam, the patient. He is nearly the age of consent—just a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday—and his objection to the transfusion is as strong as his parents’. There is legal precedent to allowing an older minor to make life or death decisions about his care, and the judge must decide if Adam is fully aware of the consequences of his choice. His death will be agonizing, or in the unlikely event he lives, his future will be a half-life spent in blindness and compromised mental capacity. Standing against her is a sheltered faith of dubious theological framework, and the right to determine one’s own destiny.
The control and confidence with which Fiona Maye handles her cases belies the mess of her life at home. At the start of this slim novel, her husband Jack, a university professor, announces he would like to have an affair and hopes she’ll understand his need to assert his sexuality in the waning light of his life. Fiona and Jack have been married for thirty years and although they have no children, their life is enriched with the frequent presence of nieces and nephews.
McEwan brings to the page a paradox that fascinates me: how many can be in such supreme command of their professional lives, yet find themselves mired in disaster at home. But this is where The Children Act stumbles and strains for me. Jack offers as defense for his fling the fact that he and Fiona have not had sex for “seven weeks and one day,” a period during which Fiona was trying an exceptionally draining and emotional case. As she ruminates about their marriage, Fiona recalls an active and satisfying sex life.
As sensitive and starkly real a portrayal of new marriage as McEwan rendered in On Chesil Beach, I find myself disbelieving the mature marriage in The Children Act. I can’t determine if the author expects us to believe a man would pursue an affair after a brief dry season and that he would want his wife to accept to an open marriage, a marriage that had heretofore known great sex. But later, as Fiona and Jack find their way back to each other, the tiny, tender moments of frail solidarity seep in and mostly redeem the incredible bits.
The troubled marriage plays in the background. It is the case of Adam and his faith that allows us to enter Fiona’s intellect and to battle with our own ethical and moral demons. Fiona’s internalized anguish over her own childlessness adds poignancy to her strength on the bench of family court. She determines the fate of so many children, yet Fate has determined that she will have none of her own.
In this era of doorstop novels—those giant, bloated affairs that become the darlings of the literati (and of me, yes, I have loved many a 500-hundred-plus-pager in recent months!)—it is a gift to read a rich, complete, thoughtful novel that combines meticulous research with exciting imagination in a mere 221 pages. The Children Act isn’t perfect (and what a relief that it isn't, right?). But it’s vital, full of emotion, and so beautifully written, it made me purr.