It’s Ian McEwan’s own fault that you expect so much from his new novel, The Children Act. His books are always enjoyable, some, like The Child in Time and Amsterdam, have gone on to win prestigious awards. Others like Atonement have been adapted into successful movies able to attract stellar casts. He never shies away from the controversial and then goes about dissecting the subject with a brisk deftness.
The Children Act (the title comes from the legislation which governs the treatment of juveniles in the British judiciary system), is a subject ripe for his skilled touch. It centers on Fiona Maye, a successful High Court judge who is hearing an urgent case involving Adam, a 17-year old boy Jehovah’s Witness who, for religious reasons, is refusing medical treatment that could save his life, a decision that is supported by his parents. The medical authorities have applied in the family court for permission to administer the treatment over the boy’s wishes, at least for three months until he is 18 and deemed an adult.
As demanding as the dilemma is, it represents the kind of legal conundrum to which Maye is familiar, an area of the law where legal, moral and ethical considerations collide, with religion a major player. She had recently ruled against the wishes of the devout Catholic parents to allow the separation of co-joined twins one only partially formed and with no long-term chance of life, the other almost certain to live if freed from his “parasitic” brother. It was an “elegant and correct” judgment, highly praised by her colleagues.
But just as she is enjoying a triumphant trajectory at work, her marriage is plunged into crisis. Her husband announces that while he still loves her, their relationship has become one of “loving siblings” and he needs “one big passionate affair before I drop dead” and seeks her approval. While juggling the sudden disintegration of her private life with her exacting workload, Maye visits the hospital bound Adam to discuss in person his decision to cease treatment before she makes her decision. It is a meeting that is to change both their lives.
McEwan is masterful at discussing complex issues without over-simplifying or providing trite conclusions. And the subject matter of The Children Act is both challenging and thought provoking. There are no easy answers. But once the wigs came off, it all became a bit more mundane. What in essence you get is the story of a talented, experienced woman who, even in the most challenging of cases, involving life and death, can carefully peel away layers of ethical and moral complication to deliver majestic decisions, but who struggles in the face of marital infidelity and personal embarrassment. This contradiction was, for me, never fully resolved.
McEwan has recently been outspoken against the rise of the multi-paged mega-novel (think The Goldfinch and the Luminaries to name but two), doorstoppers that seem particularly popular. However, in the case of The Children Act, perhaps we might have benefitted from a little less brevity from an author who is still always worth reading.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape and Allen&Unwin.