Ian McEwan’s trim new novel, The Children Act, is solid, satisfying, and thoughtful, likely to please McEwan devotees as well as new readers in search of a quiet, sharply intelligent read. More like On Chesil Beach in scope and tone than his more recent fare (Sweet Tooth; Solar), The Children Act hinges on the question of child welfare, specifically on the right of 17 year old leukemia patient Adam Henry to refuse a lifesaving blood transfusion. Jehovah’s Witness Adam, along with his parents, believe mixing one’s blood with the blood of another human to be a scriptural perversion. High Court Judge Fiona Maye, on call as duty judge, must preside over an emergency hearing initiated by a hospital to force the transfusion on Adam.
Readers cannot help but be impressed with Fiona’s incisive legal skill, her compassion, her writing flair noted among fellow judges “for crisp prose, almost ironic, almost warm, and for the compact terms in which she laid out a dispute”. Here, one feels, Fiona has much in common with McEwan, her creator. The legal cases Fiona has presided over — some heart wrenching and profoundly difficult — carry the reader apace; they are ever insightful, elegantly reasoned, never dull.
Confronted daily with human sorrow played out on the stage of the Family Court, Fiona notes that “marital or partner breakdown and distress in Great Britain swelled like a freak spring tide, sweeping away entire households, scattering possessions and hopeful dreams, drowning those without a powerful instinct for survival” but believes she “brought reasonableness to hopeless situations.” She remains unfalteringly sensitive and level in her considerations of children’s welfare in these matters. Even so, Fiona is no pushover for secular humanism. She believes the courts should be slow to intervene in matters of religion, recognizing the value of a child’s social web.
When Fiona makes an unconventional decision in the course of Adam’s case, a string of consequences unspools, not least because, at the novel’s outset, Fiona’s husband has made an infuriating request that threatens to end their long union and her well ordered life. As McEwan fans will recognize, the novel’s sharpest focus becomes the unexpected vagaries of the heart under duress. The Children Act is not so much about the conflict between science and religious faith as it is about choices — made or unmade — that unravel a character’s world. McEwan mines this intersection of reason and passion to full effect.
And what few other writers come close to McEwan for effortless, elegant sentence after sentence flowing out of a pen wielded as precisely as a laser? With its quiet subject matter and subdued, measured tone, The Children Act might indeed read a bit like allegory or parable, as its New York Times reviewer points out; however, as much as McEwan forgoes on-the-page drama, he doesn’t stint on tension. As a writer, he rarely goes wrong. The context of religious radicalism in The Children Act provides a backdrop for a complex and unpredictable story that eager readers will want to devour in one sitting. Judge for yourself.