The Children Act by Ian McEwan: Living by the rules

This is my review of The Children Act by Ian McEwan.

This slim novel is yet another example of “less is more” in that it makes a greater impact than many a long rambling epic. Fiona is a leading High Court judge, specialising in the application of the “Children Act” of the title with its double meaning. Her heavy and harrowing workload leaves little time to deal with the shock of an unexpected crisis in a longstanding and until now apparently happy marriage.

Always keen to be thorough and fair, she decides that the urgent case of a boy, stricken with leukaemia just short of his eighteenth birthday, who has supported his Jehovah Witness parents’ refusal to agree to the blood transfusion that will save his life, obliges her to visit him in hospital to gauge his capacity to make such a decision. Her good intentions are based on the principle that “the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration”. In the ensuing drama, she learns more than she has bargained for about the complexity of dealing with a young person’s “welfare”.

Ian McEwan’s crystal prose with never a redundant word or a woolly sentence commands admiration, yet can make human relations seem somewhat clinical. Yet, I prefer this to a mawkish tone and in general his forensic analysis and clarity of writing serve to punch the reader with the raw emotion of a situation. Although everything is written from Fiona’s viewpoint, the reactions of the other players, both major and minor, are portrayed very vividly. I was completely convinced by the beautiful and over-sensitive boy Adam.

Although I understand why some readers have criticised McEwan for his focus on the privileged, upper middle-class world of a Gray’s Inn lawyer, for me this seems part of the point, if unintentionally: Fiona and her colleagues represent the confident, with taken-for-granted superiority, élite who make decisions on legal reforms and play Solomon in the lives of lesser mortals.

If the book has a weakness, it may be the somewhat condensed “telling” of a number of Fiona’s cases, combined with the author’s concern with current issues leading him to overload the plot with the world’s ills. You could of course argue that all this illustrates the almost frantic variety and stress of Fiona’s job. I also found the “climax” of the book is a little contrived, when Fiona receives what seems like bad news, without our being told what it is, just before going on stage for a piano performance, for which McEwan’s writing lost its usual spare precision and became rather pretentious and “knowing” about music.

This is a thought-provoking book on several levels: the right to decide on life and death, the psychology of ageing and the state of Britain. It is serious, compelling, yet lightened with touches of McEwan’s wry wit

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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