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10th Grade202432 Stories4th of July99 DaysA Change in AltitudeA Demon in My ViewA Dream of WolvesA Falling KnifeA Finely Tuned Apathy MachineA Heart of StoneA Life Lived RidiculouslyA Multitude of SinsA Parting GiftA Question of BloodA Quiet PlaceA Red Heart of MemoriesA River SutraA Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Slight Trick of the MindA Stir of BonesA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December About a BoyAbraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesActs of GodActs of InfidelityAfrican PsychoAfter DarkAfter YouAfter You'd GoneAfterwardsAgenda for MurderAliens in the Prime of Their LivesAll Alone in the UniverseAll Families Are PsychoticAll in the MindAll the Way HomeAltered LandAlternatives to SexAmanda's WeddingAmelia RulesAmericaAmerica AmericaAmnesiaAmong the DepartedAn Object of BeautyAngelsAngry Youth Comix #2AnimosityAnne SextonAre You Experienced?Aristotle and Poetic JusticeAristotle DetectiveArlington ParkArtemis FowlAs Hot as It Was You Ought to Thank MeAsking For MurderAsymmetryAtonementAway Laughing on a Fast CamelBabylon and Other StoriesBad BoyBad SeedBag Of BonesBalancing ActsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeautiful GirlsBed of RosesBefore I Go to SleepBefore the FrostBeg the QuestionBeginner's GreekBellyBeneath the SkinBenedictionBest New American VoicesBig BrotherBilly and GirlBiteBlack & WhiteBlack HelicoptersBlack Market TruthBlameBlanketsBleed for MeBlind SightBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBlueprints for Building Better GirlsBody SurfingBoneMan's DaughtersBoneyardBoneyardBoomsdayBorder CrossingBoth Ways Is the Only Way I Want ItBoysBracketBrain TrustBrava, ValentineBreaking Out of BedlamBreathing UnderwaterBrick LaneBridge of SighsBridget JonesBridget Jones's DiaryBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBruisesBrŁselBullyBurn, Bitchy, BurnButterflyBy BloodBy The Sea ShoreCalled to KillCanadaCanvasCaricatureCase HistoriesCellCemetery DanceChange of HeartChangesChasing the DimeChild 44Cinema PanopticumCinnamon KissCirceCircle NineCity of the LostClay's WayClose toYouClose Your EyesCloud 9 AffairCoincidenceCold CaseCold HitCold in HandCollected StoriesCome Up and See Me SometimeComfort and JoyCompulsionConfessions of a ShopaholicConfessions of an Ex-GirlfriendConsider LoveCouch FictionCrispinCross CountryCruddyCrumpleCutCypherDaddy's GirlsDakotaDamageDancing After HoursDanger in High PlacesDanger! 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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