Ian McEwan’s The Children Act

British novelist, Ian McEwan
British novelist, Ian McEwan

Many decades ago a dear friend of mine gave me a little pile of novellas for my birthday. They were all by Ian McEwan. I had never heard of him but I devoured those little books hungrily. I liked the darkness, the little knot of evil in those novels. It’s become a trade mark of his and to this day I still think the first chapter of Enduring Love is the most thrilling opening to any novel I have ever read. I’ve read them all; well that’s not entirely true: I couldn’t read On Chesil Beach. I started it and almost got to the end of the first scene; in the hotel room, the honeymoon suite, with the two innocent newly-weds and the snickering staff bringing in their meal on a tray. I had such an overwhelming sense of foreboding and embarrassment for these two child-like people that I had to shut the book. I’ve never opened it again. That little dark nut at the heart of most of his work has faded over the years but he still has a talent for the unexpected except his use of the unexpected can sometimes be very subtle. I know a few readers who didn’t ‘get’ the twist that was behind the climax of his 1998 Booker Prize winning novel, Amsterdam.

After Atonement (2001) – his masterpiece, Saturday (2005) is the most representative of his latter work, and his latest, The Children Act, begins with a similar scene: a person alone at home contemplating their future, although Fiona in chapter one of The Children Act has just had the bombshell that will change her life, while Henry, in Saturday, has yet to meet it.

The Children Act

At the centre of The Children Act is a high court judge, her husband, and a case she has to decide: a case of life or death. A young underage man, three months before his 18th birthday, desperately needs a blood transfusion to save his life. He and his parents are Jehovah Witnesses, devout, and are refusing treatment. The hospital has taken the court action to allow them to treat the boy. The legislation, the Children Act of the title, is clear. The young man, Adam, is intelligent, articulate, and more than capable of understanding his situation. However just before this case is thrust upon her the judge, Fiona, nearing 60 and childless, is confronted by her husband who wants her permission for him to have an affair; he says he still loves her but his libido and masculinity want one last chance before they and he slide into an inevitable but comfortable twilight.

McEwan takes us through every detail of the hurried case, time is short, and Fiona decides to see the boy. The meeting is deftly handled, moving, real, and McEwan manages to keep the emotion from spilling into sentimentality, although a duet sung at a deathbed’s side is strewn with potential pitfalls. We are, however, along with all the parties in the case, made to wait for her decision from her high bench. There is a feeling of expectation and intrigue: what will she decide? It’s page-turning; but her decision is not the end of the story. Her decision has consequences that no-one could predict, and I won’t spoil it for you by revealing them.

Like all her decisions, separating conjoined twins, deciding which spouse gets the kids and/or the money, she listens to the arguments, does her research, decides, closes the book, and moves on immediately to the next case and another decision about the future of people’s lives. However the image of the dying Adam stays with her in both personal, and professional terms.

She is highly regarded by her peers but the means by which she makes decisions about other people are very different to the decisions she must make in her own life. How should she respond to her husband’s request? Is it reasonable? He’s being very open and honest with her. Professional decision-making has policies and precedents, but with personal decision-making you’re on your own. On impulse she demands he leave the apartment and she immediately changes the locks, which her legal mind tells her is NOT the thing to do.

These two strands of the personal and the professional are skilfully woven together around a third: music. Fiona is a very competent amateur pianist and every year she takes part is a concert among her legal fraternity and it’s as she is walking onto the stage, in the penultimate scene, her mind full of Mahler and Schubert, that news is unkindly whispered to her; news that in another circumstance may very well stop her in her tracks; but like every aspect of her life she has other responsibilities, and now, those responsibilities are to her fellow performers, her audience, herself, and especially to the composers she is interpreting. She gives an astounding performance but can’t bring herself to acknowledge the rousing applause: one set of responsibilities are fulfilled and extolled but another responsibility, one she thought she had executed, well and for the benefit of all, had just unravelled. It’s so like McEwan to defer a climactic revelation while the protagonist is intent on doing what is expected, and so like the character not to let a past failing interfere with her immediate duty.

The end is a soft, satisfying coda as she begins to tell the man lying next to her of her shame.