I 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.