Book Reviews

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

the children actI finished reading The Children Act feeling extremely frustrated with Ian McEwan. He’s proving to be such an inconsistent writer, capable of delivering the sublime Atonement and then going and spoiling things by giving us the absolutely dire Saturday.  The plot for his most recent novel The Children Act was promising so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

This slim novel begins in an unusual way by quoting a key section from the piece of legislation known as the Children Act of 2004. It was introduced in the UK in the light of some appalling cases in which various government and health agencies failed to give adequate protection to young people. One of the key provisions says that the child’s welfare is paramount when any decisions are made in situations such as custody, emergency protection or health treatment. 

Decisions like these often fall to the High Court judges in the Family Division. In McEwan’s novel, Fiona Maye is a well-respected judge in that division, renowned for her intellect and her sensitivity when called upon to adjudicate in some emotive situations.  Behind her professional exterior however there is a fragile woman who regrets that she put her career before motherhood. Her life is rocked when her husband of thirty years leaves her when she rejects his request for an open marriage in which he could experience a ‘big passionate affair’  with a woman half his age.

In the meantime an urgent case involving a seventeen year old boy demands her attention. Unless he receives immediate medical treatment he will die. But as a Jehovah’s Witness, like his parents, he rejects the blood transfusion that would allow combined drugs to treat his leukaemia. It falls on Fiona’s shoulders to determine what is in the boy’s best interests.  Fiona decides to visit the boy in hospital to discover for herself whether Adam understands fully the consequences of his stance or is he simply going along with his parent’s views. Their encounter stirs up deeply buried feelings for Fiona and has momentous consequences for both participants when Fiona has to rule what is best for Adam’s welfare.

If only McEwan had stuck with the legal thread of the novel.  There was absolutely nothing in this novel as interesting as the legal arguments, especially the section in which Fiona delivers her verdict which runs for several pages. Beyond Fiona, the characterisation was flat and uninspiring; the relationship with Adam improbable (increasingly so as the book reaches its finale) and all the stuff about her marriage unconvincing. When Jack returns from his failed passionate adventure for example he offers a really banal sounding explanation.

Having gone to his girlfriend’s flat he tells Fiona he

“felt stupidly obliged to go on with what he had started”. “And the more trapped I felt, the more I realised what an idiot I was to risk everything we have, everything we’ve made together.

Do people really talk like this???? It reminded me of the dreadfully  cliched and pretentious dialogue in Saturday.

Should religious belief be permitted to trump medical knowledge? How should our judicial system the law approach such a case? Should the courts over-rule the family’s wishes and ignore their religious beliefs. McEwan has tapped into a subject which needs to be aired and poses questions which deserve to be addressed but all he really does in this novel is to ask the questions. He could have answered them head on, but instead he ducks and dives under the blanket of a story about relationships. How disappointing.




What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

22 thoughts on “The Children Act by Ian McEwan

  • Oh, it’s sad to hear that you were disappointed by this novel. I always look forward to a McEwan novel. This one has an interesting premise.

    I’m not sure if it’s the novelist’s job to answer the questions that they pose. I haven’t read this; I’m just putting it out there.

    • i don’t think they have to provide answers as such but if they raise questions then they should at least devote enough energy to expanding on the issues so we can find our own answers. McEwan didnt do that.

  • I haven’t read this one despite being tempted on many occasions as I read a review not too dissimilar to yours soon after publication. Atonement is one of my favourite reads of all time and yet like you I was not at all impressed by Saturday and yet, the premise to this one sounds so very promising. Thank you for writing a review that confirms that I made the right decision to leave this book in the bookshop.

    • i wasn’t sure about it Cleopatra and if hadn’t been for the subject matter I wouldn’t have succumbed

  • The premise of this book really interests me, but I’ve been afraid to read it because I’ve had the same experience with McEwan as you. I’m still torn on this one, though, because it sounds like some have loved it and some haven’t. Hmm…
    Great review, though! It definitely gives me more to think about.

    • I suppose it depends what you are looking for in a novel. I like ones that make me think or challenge me in some way. And to some extent this did but it got submerged in the pallid marital relationship stuff

  • Reading your review and the comments makes me realise how differently we all read at times. I enjoyed Children Act as a bit of a return to form in part because like you I enjoyed the legal side of the novel and maybe in part because I have a fair bit of engagement ( and at times frustrations) with The Children Act at work. I thought the characters weren’t that great beyond Fiona but it had enough in it for me to enjoy – and unlike Reading Bug, for me it was much better than Sweet Tooth which I found absolutely dire!!!!

    • As someone who connects with the legislation itself, did you feel that he dealt with the issues accurately?

  • I agree that McEwan is inconsistent (and I think somewhere along the way I ranked his books and compared the brilliant Atonement and Chesil Beach to others such as Solar).

    I agree with lots of your thoughts on this book but interestingly, I loved it. I read the bulk of it in one sitting and devoured it.

    • I forgot that I loved Chesil Beach….. Solar I didnt even both to pick up. My husband read it and gave it the so-so rating so that was enough of a clue for me

      • You didn’t miss much in Solar. There was one very funny, memorable scene but the main character was a pain. Sweet Tooth was good, and Enduring Love but I wasn’t a big rap for Amsterdam (which I know some rate as his best).

        • I think I read Amsterdam but it can’t have had much impact on me since I can’t recall a single thing about it

        • Likewise me with Saturday – no memory of it! Although I didn’t particular like the ending of Enduring Love, the opening scene with the hot air balloon is a ripper.

        • the opening was the best part of Enduring Love by far

  • First of all, please don’t give up on McEwan – yes he can be inconsistent, but at his best – I loved Sweet Tooth for example – there are few writers that can match him. But I agree with this review of the Children Act – I thought it showed the fact it had been heavily researched too obviously, and the problem with the blood transfusion case was just shoe-horned in the novel to inject some drama. Most of the characters are largely two-dimensional and unconvincing. So yes, a miss, but that’s the chance you take with McEwan!

    • Thats the frustrating thing about him – you read one and think its poor, then he comes out with something stunning….

      I didnt get the sense that the research was being jammed down my throat but I needed to get more inside Fiona’s head as she thought about cases.

  • I wasn’t keen on Saturday either. It’s a shame really as McEwan’s early novels were very good, but he seems to have lost his way in recent years. I think I’m done with him now (unless I have to read him for book group)!

    • I havent ruled him out totally – as yet – but its going to depend very much on what he does with his next book.

  • I’ve been disillusioned with McEwan too.
    Sweet Tooth was a disappointment in comparison to Atonement. The final deceit was uneventful, with universal betrayal as the theme. I had the same feeling when On Chesil Beach ended – regret; I decided to take a break from McEwan’s anticlimactic thrills for a while, so did not read Children. After reading your review, I’m glad I did not read it.

    • Chisel Beach was one I thoroughly enjoyed – yes I felt regret at the end mainly for how the lives of these two people could have turned out so differently

  • I like your review a lot. I actually liked the book, but it’s so refreshing to read an honest different opinion.


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