The Children Act

I like Ian McEwan’s particularly British way of handling drama.

By that I mean he picks smoldering topics – forbidden lust, crime, unreciprocated yearning – and presents them in a cool, tempered way. The hot-bloodedness of his subject matter is belied by his neutral gaze.

The heart of The Children Act isn’t as racy as some of his previous novels, but it bears many of his hallmarks. The stakes are high, the characters cerebral, the desires unspoken.

Here, we have Fiona Maye, a High Court judge who handles family law matters. Before her is the case of a 17-year-old Jack, who wants to comply with his Jehovah’s Witness parents’ wishes and refuse treatment, thus dying of leukemia. His doctors want Fiona to defy his wishes and allow them to force-treat him.

It’s a tense and sensitive matter that comes at a time when Fiona’s mind is already reeling. Her longtime husband is leaving her because their marriage has grown cold and lacks intimacy. She knows it’s true, but can’t believe it all the same.

To distract herself from her crumbling personal life, Fiona throws herself into Jack’s case. She breaches protocol and visits him at the hospital, scours the annals of legal scholarship for guidance and agonizes over drafts of her decision. It’s a tribute to McEwan that he can make what’s largely a novel about one woman’s intellectual and moral wrestling – there’s very little physical activity of any sort here – interesting.

Like most of McEwan’s books, The Children Act is short. We’re introduced to Fiona a moment before the chain of events begins, and we don’t stay with her long after it wraps up. Its brevity makes this novel feel concentrated and potent.

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