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Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Book Review - The Children Act, by Ian McEwan (2014)

Once again, McEwan has concocted a fine novel, his latest so far, and I have been delighted by it.

The plot develops into two story lines, as the Author often enjoys doing, which are wonderfully and fatally intertwined.

Set in to-day London, it concerns the life of a High Court judge, Fiona Maye, approaching retirement, an honest, involved magistrate and amateur pianist, who has been married 35 years to a university professor. Their family life appears serene although a little stagnant, despite the absence of children, until the day her husband confronts her with his whim to have an extra-marital affair with a much younger woman, someone she knows, all the while professing his love for his wife. She is shocked, to say the least, and tells him that she won’t accept it. He nevertheless has his way and leaves the marital home.

At the same time, Fiona is studying the case of a minor, a Jehovah’s Witness, Adam Henry, who is refusing a blood transfusion to save his life, backed by his like-minded parents. To silence her own personal pain, she gets deeply involved in the case, hearing in court all parties involved – the hospital doctors, the parents, their lawyers and a social worker. Before delivering her ruling, she decides to interview the youngster in his hospital bed, only three months short of his eighteenth birthday, but still under his parent’s legal protection.

She realises Adam is highly intelligent and sensitive; he sounds convinced of his decision to die for his deep religious beliefs, but Fiona feels that he is somehow been misled by his lack of experience and by the pressure exerted on him by the church’s elders who visit him in hospital.

She finally delivers her judgment, a clever piece of ruling, based on the celebrated 1989 Children Act, in which she stresses the duty of the law to respect all religious beliefs and at the same time to protect and foster the rights of minors, even in case someone clearly expresses his wish based on his faith to relinquish the hospital treatment aimed to save his life. The hospital doctors win the case and Adam’s life is saved.

Fiona’s family life gets further complicated by the return of her husband who has got over his fling and swears he loves her. She feels still hurt and their relationship is drifting.

The plot develops further with unexpected twists, a feature that distinguishes McEwan’s narrative and makes the reading of his novels such a riveting experience.

The Author’s empathy with his protagonist – this time a middle-class professional woman undergoing a marital crisis – is painfully authentic; he describes her compassionately whilst keeping a critical eye on her petty or spiteful actions. His descriptions lift the various characters off the page, making them three dimensional, particularly their inner feelings and twisted thoughts.

Coupled with McEwan’s stupendous psychological portraits, I am also in admiration of his meticulous research of the narrative background – nothing is  left to chance, it seems, not even the intricate legal proceedings and exact quotes from case books, not to mention his apparent competence in classical music literature.

In The Children Act we are led into the streets and areas of the City of London – Chancery Lane, Gray’s Inn Gardens, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, High Holborn, that were also the stage of Dickens’ Bleak House centred on the fictional judiciary Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Having recently read the Dickens novel, I can’t help feeling a strong underlying current of empathy between the two novelists.

McEwan, like Dickens, populates his works with several colourful characters, but, whereas in Dickens all characters are expedient to one another and to the denouement of the plot, in McEwan they are individuals drawn into the story, each one with his or her peculiarities, showing greater depth and independence of the main storyline. In fact, each character could be the subject of a new novel.

Not reaching the impossible heights of Atonement, and not exactly a thriller, The Children Act is nevertheless truly compelling.


January 2015

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