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The Children Act is a short book, more a long short story than a novel. My Kindle version estimates it should take 4.5 hours to read. It has two themes. First there is the work of High Court judge Fiona Maye. Here cases are in the family court, and she mostly decides on disputes either between parents about their children, or disputes between families and other authorities. She has many interesting cases in this tale, and the central theme is when to respect religious beliefs that may go against the apparent welfare of children. One case has a mother battling a father for custody of their daughters, and the father belongs to a religious community that discourages women from gaining an education, going to university, and becoming independent. Their mother wants them to have every educational possibility open to them, and this is the ground of her claim to custody of the girls. Fiona has to decide, and the epigraph quotes the start of the 1989 Children Act which says "the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration." The case that provides the focus of the novel is that of Adam, a seventeen-year-old Jehovah's Witness who wants to refuse a treatment for cancer because it would require a blood transfusion, which his religion is against. Without it, he may well die or become blind. He is extremely smart and articulate in defense of his right to refuse, and he is nearly an adult. So this is a very difficult case for Fiona to decide.
The other main plotline in McEwan's novel is the fracture in Fiona's marriage. Her husband Jack asks her permission to have an affair because their sex life is almost non-existent and he feels his life is passing him by. She is outraged by his request and has no intention of agreeing, but she worries it will mean the end of the marriage after many good years. So now she is all the more isolated and under pressure when she has to make the difficult judgment about Adam. The story unfolds in reasonably straightforward fashion, with both arcs of the plot reaching their conclusions in a somewhat satisfying way.
There is some intersection between the two parts of Fiona's life, on the occasions when she meets Adam, halfway into the book. She is very taken by his energy and intelligence, and on the first meeting, she spontaneously breaks into song when he is playing the violin in his hospital room, singing Down by the Salley Gardens, by Yeats. It is a surprising moment for both of them, forging a connection between the young man and the much older woman, and indicating the possibility of change for both of them. There is indeed change soon after, and as one would expect with any story by McEwan, it has a dark side.
This is McEwan's most intellectual novel since Saturday (2005). While that novel was about brain science, neurosurgery, personhood and moral agency, this one is about religion, the law, rights, and maturity. It is full of provocative ideas and interesting details. But there's also a strong artistic vein. Adam not only plays the violin, but also starts writing poetry. Fiona herself is intensely involved in music, and the climax of the novel has her performing in a concert. The piece by Yeats arises again, so it holds a good deal of significance. Much of the novel seems to be about Fiona's confinement in her role as a judge, and the ways that she cannot reach out to people. On reflecting on her marriage, she remembers how Jack introduced her to jazz. She admired it but she could not play it. "No pulse, no instinct for syncopation, no freedom, her fingers numbly obedient to the time signature and notes as written. That was shy she was studying law, she told her lover. Respect for the rules." Her contact with Adam makes her question her role as a judge and her choices in her life. Readers would do well to seek out the music that is described throughout the novel because it helps to bring home the mood and passion that McEwan is getting at.
The Children Act is one of McEwan's best works, addressing large issues in a thoughtful way. It does not resort to a surprise ending, as several of his other novels do. It is high-minded, bittersweet and rather serious. One might find fault with his putting the rather sickly sweet Yeat's poem at the heart of the book, but readers should not rush to judgment. It is a song that has been covered by many Celtic-groups in tired and hackneyed format, so it is important to remember that Fiona has in mind the music written by Benjamin Britten, which is far more tender and fresh. Keeping that in mind helps crystalize the emotional center of this work, with McEwan portraying Fiona with great sympathy but at the same time highlighting the limitations of her life.
© 2014 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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