The Children Act: Superb Older Ian McEwan Fiction

By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 224 pages

Although I didn’t like Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s most recent novel, there is no mistaking his talent. He is, after all, an author who has given us such gems as The Comfort of Strangers, Atonement, and the Man Booker-winning Amsterdam. I recently picked up The Children Act, which was published in 2014, and found it an astonishingly great read for a slim volume that can be devoured in just a few sittings. It reveals something rare: an unvarnished look at overlapping dilemmas so soaked in moral ambiguity that any decision one makes is little more than a bet-the-house single roll of the dice.

Our central character, Fiona Maye, is a British High Court Judge specializing in family law. You need nothing more about British jurisprudence except that high court judges are akin to appellate court judges in the United States, but with an added power: their decisions are usually final in the adjudication of thorny cases that rest on conflicting precedent. The book’s title refers to a 1989 Act of Parliament that favors keeping at-risk children with their parents, but empowers agencies to act contrary to parental wishes if a child’s welfare is endangered. McEwan also uses it in a literal sense—as in a “child” taking matters into his or her own hands. I put child in quote marks, because McEwan challenges us to define that term. When does a child become an adult? What is to be done with adults who do childish things?

High Court judges have high status in Britain and big salaries to go with it. Fiona and her husband Jack are both around 60, reside in a sequestered part of London*, and enjoy high-powered professional lives filled with classical music, literature, gourmet dining, and formal parties. They’ve comfortably settled into their childless, privileged, and considerate-but-passionless lives. Fiona is a fine musician herself and, as a judge, has a well-earned reputation for her Solomonic judgments. Of course, judgments are easier to render when they’re not personal. How would you decide if, at 60, your spouse asked for permission to engage in sexual congress with a younger person to replace the sex you’re not having?

Fiona must ponder this simultaneously with a case that Solomon himself might have declined: that of Adam Henry, who has leukemia, is months from turning eighteen, and is a Jehovah’s Witness encouraged by his parents and minister not to accept blood transfusions that would save his life. Under the law, he remains a child, but when Fiona visits him in the hospital, she finds him precociously intelligent, aware that he will probably die without treatment, and at peace with that potential fate. She also finds Adam to be sweet and gifted—a budding poet, a voracious reader, a first-rate scholar, and talented enough to be in the process of teaching himself how to play the violin in the unorthodox setting of what might be his hospice bed. In many ways, Adam is the son she never had. Surely his death would be beyond tragic, yes? This is magnified in song. As she sits with Adam in his room, he plays and she sings “Down by the Salley Gardens,” a William Butler Yeats poem that was set to music in 1909 and has since become a staple of Irish folk song. Key line: She bade me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs/But I was young and foolish, and am now full of tears. How would you rule?

Two choices and each could be seen as Sophie’s Choices; that is, however Fiona decides, it boils down to accepting one bad outcome over another as damage has already been done. This short book is an ice water in the face dose of how life often works. Which overrides, faith or science? Autonomy or a literal reading of the law? Morality or pragmatism? Youth or wisdom? Passion or propriety? And once you have decided, what is the proper amount of follow up, nurturing, and support? What a book! It sheds light on at least one lie so seductive and seductive we choose to believe it: “You can have it all.” If only.

Rob Weir

* In Britain, High Court judges sometimes live in “inns” comparable to how top professors live at Oxford or Cambridge. Their lodgings and law chambers are there, as is a collegiate setting of other top lawyers. One must be a “member” to live or work there.

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