Book Review – The Children Act by Ian McEwan
I have a rocky relationship with McEwan’s work. I liked Atonement. I loved Amsterdam. I rhapsodised to the point of obsession over Saturday. Other than the startlingly original and funny treatise on the single pubic hair peeping out of the heroine’s underwear, I did not like On Chisholm Beach. Sweet Tooth invited an unflattering comparison to Le Carre at his best (damn, whatever happened to Le Carre?).
So I approached McEwans’s latest with the attitude of beaten puppy. It is, happily, a partial return to form. Not great, but very good, particularly after the books finds its rhythm after a slow start. Although there is a section of writing from page 131 – 135 which is better than great, a smouldering, sharply chiseled and gorgeously rendered essay on the sadness and horrors of failed families. I reread it three times – it is a reminder if just how good he is.
And failed families are the bedrock of this novel. The protag is Fiona Maye, an English high court judge presiding over family court. These matters are given life by 3 cases presented to M’Lady through the course the book and described in detail – the viewing and judgement over the morally ruptured rubble of families once catalysed by love and now exploded by resentment or hate or betrayal or the monotonous cacophony of human weakness and inflexibility. And always, damaged children standing stunned and mute in their wake. Ultra Orthodox Jewish fathers blocking their daughters’ access to education, an extreme Christian sect refusing to allow a blood transfusion for their dying son, a conjoined set of twins, for whom the medical murder of one will save the other. Moral morass, all grey, the sort of choices for which the law is near hopeless
A second connected narrative, revealed early, concerns Fiona’s long term husband and partner to their childless but seemingly successful marriage who has has suddenly decided that he needs to have one great passionate affair with a younger woman before he slides down the hill of his 60s towards dotage. The interplay of her shock and humiliation and rage against him, and her cool and wise judgements in the cases that come before her are cleverly juxtaposed.
The link that binds these two narratives is a beautiful and and complex teenage boy whose life has been saved by one of Fiona’s judgements, who begins to stalk her. This culminates in a meeting between Fiona and the boy in the reception of a private hotel, and is stamped by a small and brief 3 second act of inexplicable and shocking recklessness initiated by the judge, eventually offering her a sort of bridge to forgiving.
As always, McEwan’s book is interspersed with essays and mini-treatises on matters great and small, but all tightly bound to the plot – the families that we destroy through selfishness, the moral quagmires in which we thrash, and the redemption and forgiveness that hover just within reach for those who can see.