THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan

The Children Act is Ian McEwan’s latest novel. It takes place in London (where I read it!) and it’s about Fiona Maye, a family court judge who is facing simultaneous professional and personal crises. On the home front, her husband of 30+ years has told her that he wants to have an affair. He loves her, but he feels like the window of his own desirability is closing, and he wants to experience the thrill of new passion once more. Needless to say, Fiona is devastated and angry, and when her husband leaves their apartment that night, she has the locks changed and tries to focus on her work, despite her pain.

On the professional side, Fiona hears a consistent stream of cases involving divorces, custody battles, restraining orders and the like, some of which are difficult and some of which deal with greedy ex-spouses fighting over money. But one case  – which comes before her the day after her husband leaves – is much more agonizing. Fiona has to decide whether a 17 year-old with leukemia who has refused a blood transfusion due to his Jehovah’s Witness parents’ beliefs should be forced to have the life-saving treatment. She decides to go visit the boy – Adam – in the hospital, to see for herself whether Adam is acting on his own accord. Their meeting has a profound impact on both of them, and influences her decision in his case but also forces her to think about her role as a judge, especially at a time of deep insecurity in the rest of her life.

This is my fourth McEwan novel (after Atonement, On Chesil Beach, and Saturday). I LOVED Atonement (top 5 of all time), liked On Chesil Beach but found it odd, and wasn’t as impressed with Saturday. To be sure, McEwan is a beautiful writer. Just beautiful. In many ways, The Children Act read like a novella: it covered a pretty short period of Fiona’s life, but packed an emotional punch thanks to sharp detail and McEwan’s depth of writing. When I was in law school, I found the family law cases to be the most wrenching, often because both sides were equally compelling. McEwan did a nice job here of laying out the case and letting the reader appreciate its complexities. Fiona’s decision is made early enough in the novel that the case doesn’t take over the book; it is its aftermath that really propels the story.

I marked several passages as I was going through the book because of the sheer beauty of McEwan’s writing. I don’t think they will be as powerful out of context, so I won’t copy them here. But even on re-reading, I am still in awe.

Strong second read of 2015.

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