The Children Act
Jonathan Cape £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code
LAWYERS often get a bad press, and, as a lawyer friend once
pointed out to me, even Jesus was not too kind to them. The main
character of Ian McEwan's new novel is Fiona Maye, a leading High
Court judge, who, through her work in the family court, is forced
to confront her own inner demons, not least her experience of
having remained childless, and her longstanding marriage, which
seems to be in crisis. Her husband, although he has no intention of
ending the marriage, demands one passionate affair.
In the course of her work, Fiona is called to try an urgent case
concerning Adam, who is days away from his 18th birthday and
suffering from leukaemia. Adam is the son of Jehovah's Witnesses,
and, according to the beliefs of his parents' religion, is not
allowed to receive the blood transfusion that would save his life.
As Adam has not yet reached the age of majority (though only days
away from it), the law demands that a judgment be made "in the
child's best interest".
Fiona makes an unorthodox (and eventually fatal) decision to
visit Adam in hospital, and there begins a relationship between a
woman in her fifties and a teenager, which will ultimately
determine the course of the novel, in typical McEwan fashion.
Adam survives, and seeks out Fiona, who has, as he says, "shown
him life". He even follows her out of London, to Newcastle, where
she is "on circuit", hearing cases in provincial courts. It is
there that a fatal encounter, a kiss that in Adam's eyes becomes a
moment of betrayal, takes place.
Fiona may have "shown" Adam life, but the question remains
whether she has given it to him, or is ultimately responsible for
its being taken away from him.
This would not be a McEwan novel if it wasn't tragic in the
extreme. But, as always, it is told in the most gripping way
imaginable. Every detail in the narrative is of importance, and
skilfully describes both love and cruelty in a way that keeps
readers on the edge of their seats.
McEwan raises questions, not least about the portrayal of
religion in public life; about human beings' at times fateful
ability to sit in judgement over the lives of those who hold values
other than their own; and, ultimately, about humanity itself.
Fiona is by no means a tragic heroine, however. She remains
throughout the book a woman of flesh and blood, herself in need of
love and of the stuff of life, seeking solace in music and living
with regrets as well as principles.
The Children Act is a good read, but an incredibly
Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian and writer living in