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Ian McEwan is a truly masterful, elegant writer. When I read the blurb for his latest novella, The Children Act, the only question in my mind was ‘how much am I going to love this book?’. I have yet to find fault with anything he has written. And he did not disappoint.
Fiona Maye is a leading High Court judge, well-respected by her peers for her intelligence, sensitivity and exactitude. As head of the Family Court division, she presides over the difficult cases – whether to separate Siamese twins when to do so means certain death for one, whether to grant a mother’s request to allow her teenage daughters to be educated in a mainstream school against the wishes of her ultra-orthodox Jewish ex-husband, and whether to force a teenage boy to undergo life-saving chemotherapy treatment in opposition to his devoutly religious parents.
It is this last case that occupies Fiona for the majority of the book. Adam is three months short of his eighteenth birthday, three months short of being a legal adult able to decide for himself whether to refuse to accept medical treatment which involves a blood transfusion, something that is forbidden by his family’s church. His time is running out. Before reaching her judicial life-or-death decision, Fiona visits Adam in hospital, and both of their lives are changed because of it.
At the same time, Fiona is struggling with domestic difficulties of her own. After thirty-five years of marriage, her husband has announced his intention to have an affair: “I need it. I’m fifty-nine. This is my last shot. I’ve yet to hear evidence for an after-life.” His betrayal and abandonment leaves Fiona reeling – and re-examining the choices she has made in her career and personal life. “[T]he fertile years slipped by until they were gone, and she was almost too busy to notice. … she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ”.
Fiona is flawed, vulnerable and achingly human. In an act of spite, and against her better legal judgment, she hastily instructs a locksmith to change the locks on her marital home. “A professional life spent above the affray, advising then judging, loftily commenting in private on the viciousness and absurdity of divorcing couples, and now she was down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide.”
McEwan thanks several legal experts in his acknowledgments and it is clear that he has done his homework. As someone who has been part of the legal fraternity, I found the legal arguments and explanations authentic and utterly fascinating. I desperately wanted to read more. This is a short book, more a novella like On Chesil Beach than a full novel like Sweet Tooth. It is brief but brilliant. It is testament to McEwan’s talent that such a rich story with well-rounded characters can be told in such an economic form.
Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis
The Children Act
by Ian McEwan
Published by Jonathon Cape Ltd