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The last judgement but one

by
28 November 2014

Natalie Watson is haunted by a new McEwan novel

The Children Act
Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape £16.99
(978-0-224-10199-8)
Church Times Bookshop £15.30 (Use code CT292 )

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 haunting one.

Dr Natalie K. Watson is a theologian and writer living in Peterborough.

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