The Children Act by Ian McEwan
Review by Kate Sterns
London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather. This echo of the famous opening to Dickens’ masterpiece, Bleak House serves as the beginning to Ian McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act. The reference signals, or ought to, that the reader is in for a similarly multi-layered novel brimming with sinister secrets, labyrinthine legal proceedings and possibly even a case of spontaneous combustion! Alas, no. It’s as if once his readers are comfortably settled, McEwan then nips around the front of the bus and sneakily alters the destination. Whereas Dickens was a former court reporter and a man generally familiar with the sludgier aspects of the legal profession, McEwan’s novel tastes faintly of cases served up as entertainment at a middle-class dinner party, then pocketed away for later use.
The central consciousness of the novel, as Henry James would phrase it, is Fiona Maye, a High Court judge who specializes in family law. It is through her eyes, and only hers, that we view events unfold. Aged 59, she is well-regarded, successful and childless, a fact worth mentioning because it matters to her. At the story’s opening, her husband has just informed her that he’d quite like to have an affair. Richard (although it’s hard not to think of him as Dick) has lined up his paramour already, but would like Fiona’s permission, thank you very much.
“I need it. I’m fifty-nine. This is my last shot.”
Fiona, justifiably in shock at the gall of the man, refuses to play along. He then sneaks out of the flat, only to return two days later, tail between his legs. What has actually happened with his bit on the side is left vague. (It was a torrent, part apology, part self- justification , some of which she had heard before.) It’s as if McEwan himself cannot be bothered to deal with this man’s shenanigans. Both the episode, and this husband, seem entirely superfluous.
Indeed, the crux of the novel is not the state of Fiona’s marriage, but a case she must try in the midst of her husband’s dalliance. A young boy, Adam, the fervent son of Jehovah’s Witnesses, has leukemia and is refusing the blood transfusion that would save his life. Time being of the essence, Fiona hears testimony from the doctors and the parents, before deciding to pay a swift visit to Adam in hospital. Is this journey, she wonders, that of a woman “on the edge of a crack-up making a sentimental error of professional judgment”, or is it about ensuring that the boy is as aware of the ramifications of his decision as his parents claim? Even the novelist seems unsure. When Fiona arrives, she finds nurses fluttering around the dying boy, bright light that he is. Adam is beautiful (naturally), very intelligent (of course), scribbling poetry and learning to play the violin. One wonders if McEwan worried that if Adam was a plain child, dying in an unappealingly lethargic manner, our sympathies would be lessened. Nevertheless, Fiona is enchanted—as undoubtedly McEwan hopes the reader to be— sings an Irish ditty with Adam, then goes back to make the ruling that he’s a hopeless romantic about death, so give him the blood and let him live. (That will teach him to play the violin on his deathbed!)
Live he does, and in so doing, rejects his old religion in favour of a new one, becoming instead a Fiona’s Witness. He sends her impassioned, if Platonic, letters and poems. He even follows her up to Newcastle where she is sitting on the district court. There, in the lovely manor house where judges are boarded (no Motel 6 for them), he proposes to live with her. Quite rightly she refuses but, in turning him away, somehow manages to plant a too-lingering kiss on the mouth. The Judas kiss one supposes. The Children Act refers, of course, to a legal ruling. But the word ‘act’ may also be read here as a verb. And so, just before she is due to give her yearly amateur piano recital at the Inns of Court Christmas do, Fiona learns what is—to her—shocking news, but which for the reader was a foregone conclusion.
In the end, it is difficult to discern McEwan’s central concern here. The law feels like a convenient tap from which gushes forth ready-made narratives for a clever novelist (and McEwan is very clever) to exploit. There is the Jehovah’s witness vs. modern medicine case; the Orthodox Jew fighting his emancipated wife for the right to (not) educate his daughters; the child kidnapped from her stoutly English mother by a foreign father; the Siamese twins case (one baby has a chance to live but only if the other dies) and even a run-of-the mill rich rock star divorcing his wife case. All will be familiar enough from news headlines, but the novel adds nothing substantial to our understanding either of the process by which legal decisions are reached, or of the supplicants whose lives are drastically altered by them. Even Adam appears relatively briefly. Legal precedents are liberally quoted: McEwan clearly did his research and has created a plausible enough world. Far more so than Dickens’ often wildly caricatured one. And yet, of the two authors, it is Dickens who makes you feel in your marrow the sometimes terrible effects of the implacable law—particularly on children.
And children, or lack of them, is another concern touched on here. Fiona’s childlessness preoccupies her although at 59, that ship has clearly sailed. Nor was she prevented from having kids by any medical reason; instead, she was ambitious and chose career over motherhood. And from the close attention McEwan lavishes on the perks of her life (luxurious flat, trips to Paris and Rome, elegant dinners and first rate Scotch), it is difficult to understand exactly where the problem lies. This is not to dismiss her pangs of regret—they afflict us all. One path chosen inevitably negates another. Whining about it, however, is annoying to those of us who made other choices or, more poignantly, were given no choice at all. Fiona does have oodles of grand-nephews and nieces who pop in frequently and on whom she bestows gifts. She gets to have fun with them and then give them back. The very definition of heaven to most parents. In the end, what McEwan seems to want is for the reader to believe that it is this child, Adam, above all others she has dealt with in her courtroom, who has inspired this bout of grieving in her. And in that the novel does not convince, in part because Adam feels more like a narrative contrivance than an actual child. Why, for a start, must he be described, over and over again, as so physically beautiful? So abundantly gifted? McEwan does raise a compelling question: having saved Adam, after a fashion, from death, to what extent is Fiona now implicated in his life? And while the only answer is, not at all— the courts could not function if judges were to adopt every child who comes before them—this is not to say that Fiona’s cri de coeur at the end is not affecting. It is. McEwan is too gifted a writer not to make it so. However, he does not argue his case in a compelling manner.
The joys of reading McEwan remain, even if these characters do not grip us in the firm manner of a Lady Dedlock or a Tulkinghorn. His pointillist approach to dabbing detail upon detail on the page remains as impressive as ever. In his extended passages on music for example, he appears almost to be giving a literary transcription, note by note. It is an admirable exercise, and yet, music’s access to our emotions is immediate and almost overwhelming at times. Reading on the other hand, is, as Nabokov once pointed out, first a physiological exercise. Our energy goes into deciphering a word’s meaning, not ‘hearing’ it. In a very short novel these extended musical ‘interludes’ feel self-indulgent. The writing is played andante when accelerando might be more welcome.
Ultimately, The Children Act reads like a gifted writer’s dalliance. McEwan’s best works— The Child In Time and Enduring Love (which feature two of the most extraordinary openings to novels in contemporary literature), Atonement and his masterwork, On Chesil Beach, showcase his writing in ways that this book ultimately does not. McEwan at this stage of his career can certainly afford the luxury of dabbling in a subject he finds interesting. Readers, of course, must judge for themselves whether or not this is worth their time.
Kate Sterns is the author of Thinking About Magritte (HarperCollins) and Down There By The Train (Knopf). She teaches in the Department of English at Concordia.