………………………………………Reading this was a bit like rediscovering an old shirt at the back of the wardrobe that I’d once loved, had stopped wearing as I’d put on weight and then eons later finding it AND finding it now fits again…..not only reuniting me with an ‘old campaigner’ (as all my single-man days clothes are known affectionately to me!) but at the same time also magically letting me know I’ve lost weight as well!
Actually that might be straying too far into the realms of fantasy, but having been distinctly underwhelmed by Ian McEwan’s last two books Solar and Sweet Tooth, I didn’t have the highest of hopes for this book. But right from the first page I knew everything was going to be fine and while its not quite a return to the sheer wonderfulness of Atonement or Amsterdam, I still thoroughly enjoyed The Children Act.
Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in the Family Division and as the story begins she’s got two problems to come to terms with. At home her husband has announced that he plans to have one last fling and embark on an affair and at work she’s required to rule on a hugely complex case involving a young man with leukaemia who’s refusing treatment on the grounds of his religious beliefs….but as he’s just under the age of consent Fiona has to rule on what is in his best interests under the Children Act of 1989.
As the court case progresses Fiona becomes increasingly involved in the life of 17 year-old Adam as she tries to determine his competence to make the decision to refuse the treatment on offer and to ultimately determine whether or not he is making a decision based on his genuinely held beliefs or whether he’s actually taking a decision to meet the expectations of his parents beliefs. Meanwhile her husband Jack follows through on his decision to have the affair, leaving Fiona to decide whether to come to terms with the affair and continue their marriage or to decide that she won’t agree to Jack’s proposition that the marriage and the affair can, and should, co-exist.
The two parts of the narrative have enough in common and enough potential influence to sit alongside one another in the story and as you’d expect from such a great writer he handles it brilliantly. Both of the situations demand complex decisions from Fiona, balancing logic, interpretation and emotion, and I thought it was a great way to illustrate the complexity of family law and the fact that it has a subtlety beyond the usual definitive legal issues of guilty or innocent. Equally though Ian McEwan doesn’t overdo the linking up of the two parts of the narrative and so both develop and draw you in as a reader.
There’s a real attention to detail in the writing and so many little touches that lift this way above the majority of novels I read. Most of the time this just adds to the enjoyment of the book, whether it’s in the descriptions of Fiona and Jack’s home or in the debates between the circuit court judges on their tours of different parts of the country. Just occasionally though it slipped over for me into being either a bit too technical or into being a detail too many. In places the research into family law and particularly complex judgements runs the risk of seeming a bit ‘showy!’. In my work, the cases my staff manage will bring us into the realms of the law and the Family Court so for me, reading Fiona’s judgements or finding out about how precedents might be taken into account was irresistible – but I can see that for others this might get tedious and distracting.
The characters in the novel are mixed. I believed in the bohemian academic Jack, with his vanities and unintentional cruelties and found him strangely engaging – maybe I identified with him as a man who might also have ‘old campaigners’ at the back of his wardrobe! On the other hand, Adam, the 17-year-old with whom Fiona develops an obvious affinity and a mutual bond, was a lot less effective as a character. I thought when Ian McEwan let Adam move towards being a character who was on-the-surface calm and rational but underneath a maelstrom of emotions, he was much more real. But other parts of his character, like the viola-playing and the poetry that mesmerises the nurses who care for him, was just a bit too twee for me! But the strength of the book is the character of Fiona. There’s a cold, almost detached feel to her but underneath that logical brain she’s such a contrast. So I enjoyed his portrayal of the same character in two quite different contexts and the Fiona who emerges between the ordered, complex and intellectual world of the law is fundamentally different to the Fiona who emerges in the sad, unraveling world of her marriage, even though there are still huge consistencies in how she acts and reacts in both situations.
Overall, I think you have to admire Ian McEwan’s willingness to take on such a potentially controversial subject as the conflicts between religious belief, religious freedom and the law, especially in the world of Family Law with its perennial focus on the debate about the ‘best interests of the child’, which is always a contentious one. Inevitably the story is slightly more weighted in places towards the respective arguments for each side of that debate as opposed to the narrative itself so just occasionally it can feel more like reading a legal discussion paper than a novel. But I found these sections fascinating so they certainly didn’t detract from the story for me. If you’re new to Ian McEwan I wouldn’t recommend you start here as he’s written better books than this. But he’s a wonderful writer and that’s very much on show here, so if you’re a McEwan fan like I am, and if like me you’d started to wonder about his books after the last two in particular then fear not – with The Children Act, one of the very best British authors is very much back where he belongs!