Ian McEwan’s 13th novel explores weighty issues: the clash between religious beliefs and science, the promise of youth and the challenges of middle age, the corrosive effects of family conflict, and the power of the judicial system. At its core, though, The Children Act is less about societal issues and more about matters of the heart.
Like his masterful 2001 novel, Atonement, McEwan has crafted an intricate story that hinges on one moment of horrible misunderstanding. The main character, Fiona Maye, is extremely well drawn. Fiona, 59, is a British high court judge who presides over the family division. Fiona handles this difficult assignment with fairness and balance. McEwan takes the reader through the reasoning of her decisions on several thorny cases. She is clearly a judge who rules with sensitivity and wisdom, doing as little damage as possible to the fragile children whose fate rests in her hands.
It takes a special person to rule on family matters and Fiona is well aware of the human toll of these cases. She observes, “Loving promises were denied or rewritten, once easy companions crouching behind counsel, oblivious to the costs.” Fiona learns first-hand the pain of a union riven apart when Jack, her husband of 35 years announces one evening that he plans to have an affair. Fiona tells him that if he follows through their marriage is over. Hours later she receives a call about an urgent case to which she has been assigned. Adam Henry, a 17-year-old Jehova’s Witness stricken with leukemia, has refused a lifesaving blood transfusion on religious grounds.
After hearing both sides of the issue, the judge decides to meet young Adam in the hospital. The scene in the boy’s hosptial room is the most powerful in the novel. Though Adam is sickly and short of breath, Fiona is struck by his vitality and his passion for life. He has taken to writing poetry and learning to play the violin. Adam, in turn, is touched by how much the judge cares about him. She ultimately rules in favor of the hospital and Adam receives the transfusion.
But that’s not the end of the story. The judge has a subsequent contact with Adam that goes terribly wrong, much like the famous scene in Atonement when Briony makes a false accusation against an innocent man after misinterpreting something she has seen. Though the scene in The Children Act felt stage-managed it did not detract from this eloquently written novel. McEwan’s prose is such a pleasure to read and I recommend this novel.