The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

children act

This very short novel begins with a crisis in the stable and ordered life of High Court Judge Fiona Maye, a specialist in Family Law. Childless herself and partner in a long and comfortably loving marriage, Fiona finds the deep pleasure of her life, the moments when she loses herself, in sorting out tangled cases and writing opinions that can themselves become standard references for later cases.

Her superior view from the bench is challenged when her husband informs her that he is embarking on an affair. He says that he still loves her but wants one more passionate adventure before he dies, complaining that their sex life has waned. Indeed, when challenged, she cannot remember when they last had sex. When she refuses to go along with his scheme, he sneaks out of the house with a suitcase he’d packed before talking with her, thus giving the lie to his grand protestations of honesty and openness.

At the same time, Fiona is confronted with a challenging case of a young man only a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday stricken with leukemia. He and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and thus are refusing the blood transfusions that are almost certainly required to save his life. The hospital asks the court, in the person of Fiona, to intervene.

I think that McEwan is a marvelous writer, though I’ve found his books to be uneven, some excellent and some duds. Yet, while I appreciate his plotting and his prose, I cannot warm to his characters. Some I actively dislike while some, like Fiona, seem held at such a distance, perhaps from themselves as well as from me, that I cannot begin to care what happens to them.

In this case, I rather wanted to cheer for Fiona in her new single life, but she quickly knuckles under, allowing Peter to return after mere days. I enjoyed reading about the various court cases, but found the story of the Jehovah’s Witness boy and his reaction to her ruling unrealistic. I felt that the characters were being moved about like chess pieces to suit the plot rather than the plot growing out of the characters.

I will say that I was happy the story did not start off with a show-off set piece, like a home invasion or balloon accident. I also loved the descriptions of the various musical bits, whether a performance or an appreciation of a recording. And I appreciated the tightness of the prose. I’ve become rather annoyed with sprawling novels that betray the lack of an editor’s hand. Here, we charge through the story and a variety of cases with alacrity yet without sacrificing necessary detail.

I feared this would become a story about religion, but it is not. It is a story about the degree of responsibility we bear for those whom we encounter in our lives, whether chosen or accidental. It is a story about work, which I love to see, work that absorbs us and brings out the best in us.

Have you read a novel centered on the protagonist’s working life?

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