A finely judged legal dilemma

The Children Act
Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape £16.99

WHAT may be the best first page of any novel this year announces The Children Act, Ian McEwan’s latest portrayal of the professional elites. To the neurosurgeon in the divisive Saturday (2005) and the Nobel-winning physicist of the satirical Solar (2010), McEwan adds Fiona Maye, a High Court judge with a reputation for bringing “reasonableness to hopeless situations”.

The childless, 59-year-old Fiona specialises in “vicious” disputes between husbands and wives, and in contentious child custody cases. The Children Act is set during one dramatic night. Fiona’s husband, Jack, a caricature of an aging academic who sees infidelity as an entitlement, has just announced his intention to pursue a “big, passionate affair”. Not to seek divorce, mind, merely to ‘purchase’ his pleasure with his wife’s misery.

Fiona throws him out of their Gray’s Inn home (“Jack, you’re 60! It’s pathetic, it’s banal”), but before she can process what has happened she is called to adjudicate on a life-saving blood transfusion for a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness named Adam. Conflicted by Adam’s rare form of leukaemia and the religious convictions of his parents, Fiona succumbs to the “sentimental whim” of visiting the hospital (pausing only to have the locks changed on her apartment). The boy is only three months shy of attaining majority and so “very nearly an adult”. Consequently, how much do his parents’ wishes matter?

McEwan’s title is more than a clever allusion and The Children Act is not just a novel about the titular welfare legislation. It is an exploration of the generative act of bringing a child into the world, about the responsibilities and the limits of caring for that life. It is also about the act — the performance — of wanting children, and the “habitual theme” of social pressure. Fiona, even at the end of her 50s, is still haunted by the fact that she never became a mother, while the reader struggles with the way childlessness is regarded as a “failure”.

In Adam, Fiona finds a surrogate son. He is also the embodiment of her work, of the “strange differences, special pleading, intimate half-truths” and “exotic accusations” to which she has sacrificed her fertile years. Unexpectedly, Adam is resistant to the transfusion; brainwashed by a “cult”, as the hospital has it. Yet Fiona knows that “the duty of the court” is “to enable the children to come to adulthood and make their own decisions about the kind of life they wanted to lead”. It is an intricate dilemma from which McEwan does not shirk.

He offers the reader a masterfulrl study of a mind devoted to fairness at, perhaps, the expense of being fair to herself, but The Children Act is also a fascinating, painstakingly researched look inside the judicial process. “As in all branches of law,” Fiona knows, “fine-grained particularities of circumstance needed to be assimilated at speed”. Her decisions, and her thinking, are precisely, elegantly described by an author who has, as in Saturday and Solar, clearly absorbed the minutiae of his protagonist’s vocation.

Conveyed in crisp prose, this attention to detail elevates the moral conundrums of The Children Act beyond the sensationalism lesser authors might have pursued.

It is, in all respects, a novel that is carefully judged.


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