The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

by Robert A. Parker

This 2014 work is a perfect little novel. It is short in length and simple in its story of Judge Fiona Maye. But it is perfect in its structure and rich in its meaning. The richness is in its exploration of the justice that Fiona has to administer. And the perfection is in her personal story that contrasts to the blind administration of justice. An administration that must leave aside the emotions that follows Fiona down every courtroom corridor.

When we meet Fiona, she has been told by her husband Jack that he still loves her, does not want to leave her, but that he wants to have an affair with a younger woman, not least because he and Fiona have not made love for two months and he needs one more fling at ecstasy. She becomes very angry at this proposed betrayal, although we can see she feels a certain guilt at having ignored his feelings for the sake of her career.

And that career is a fascinating one. She is a British High Court judge who has been assigned to handle family disputes, and we are led to understand how deeply she is caught up in her legal career by following her consideration of two disputes. In one case, a Jewish father wishes to raise two daughters within his conservative community, while his wife desires a more liberal education that will prepare the girls for today’s world. In another case, Siamese twins are born to a Catholic family; and both will die, unless there is an operation that will kill one baby in order that the other may survive.

What makes these cases so alive is that Fiona evaluates both sides of each dispute, understands why different parts of a family feel the way they do, and balances the good and the bad that will result from her support for either argument. And, as a result, one is not sure of her decision until the time she gives it. Nor is it lost on the reader that while her decisions tend to favor the liberal side in each controversy, she confronts her personal issue with her husband from a more traditional perspective.

But while her dispute with her husband permeates her thinking throughout the novel, it is another family dispute that dominates this book. It concerns Adam, the teenage son of a Jehovah’s Witness couple. He is seriously ill, and needs a blood transfusion to survive, but both he and his parents say a transfusion will be against their faith, that the bible says God has decreed that no one is to allow a foreign substance (such as another person’s blood) to enter their bodies.

The novel’s title comes from an actual act of Parliament that all legal decisions regarding children must consider first the welfare of the child. And “welfare,” of course, can be interpreted in many ways, depending on the given situation. And a major strength of this novel is the depth with which this conflict between religion and the state is explored. Like the confect between religion and science, it is a common theme in McEwan’s novels. Indeed, the conflicts here, first with Jewish parents and then Catholic parents seems deliberate.

But each evaluation here is so balanced on either side that neither the reader (forgetting that we are reading McEwan) nor Fiona is sure what her decision is going to be. Whereupon, she makes a major decision that will join Adam’s issue to that of her own personal dispute with her husband. It is a literary decision, of course, by author McEwan, for two such major themes need to come together. But it is also a personal decision that will have a major impact on her life, when she decides she must meet the young Adam.

For she becomes attached to him as a person. In fact, she sees him as the son that she and her husband were too busy to have. And Adam, in responding to her attention, becomes more real to the reader, making her decision about him still more important. But, more significantly, he begins pursuing her, thinking he has discovered her love, whereas it is only her compassion.

And so the novel moves toward the resolution of the two situations: both Fiona with her husband, and Fiona with Adam. There is a certain contrast in those resolutions, but both do work for me. Not least because one affects the other. Other critics, however, have felt the original juxtaposition is too calculated, and not realistic. But I see it as the author’s premise. What would happen to this highly intellectual judge when confronted by an emotional situation?

I might also note that religion does not often come out on top in McEwan’s work. In Adam’s case, even a little irony is involved in his final decision. But because he and the people in Fiona’s other cases are treated so understandingly as human, I can go along with the outcomes here. For most of these characters hold to their beliefs with complete sincerity. What is missing from McEwan’s presentations are the religious reasons behind these moral conflicts, but it is the conflicts that are at the heart of literature, not religious rationales.

Where the critics may be on sounder ground concerns the resolution of Fiona’s conflict with her husband Jack. In this case, I was not entirely convinced, perhaps because it involves a shift in Jack’s response and also introduces a certain convenience for these two characters. But the balance it offers to her judicial outcomes provides a certain literary justification. She has caused pain in one character, and it is not in her to cause pain in another.

What has impressed me, but not other critics, is the neatness with which McEwan has created these characters and this situation. Not the logical reality but the logical balance. It is what contributes to the “littleness” of this novel, its simplicity. It’s a simplicity that recalls for me Hersey’s A Single Pebble or Edmundo Desnoes’ Inconsolable Memories. That is, it is not a complex work, but it has complex ramifications, in this case the emotional impact on a rational being. It is not about the conflict between religion and science. It is about the conflict within one person when those two elements collide. (August, 2016)

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