The Children Act by Ian McEwan
Fiona Maye is a British High Court judge in the Family Division. Her well-ordered personal life is disrupted when her husband informs her that because of the paucity of sex in their lives, he is going to have “’one big passionate affair’” (7). At the same time, while feeling humiliated and betrayed, she has to make an emergency ruling on a complex case involving Adam Henry, a teenaged Jehovah Witness refusing a blood transfusion which would save his life. Her ruling has unforeseen consequences which leads to her entire world being shaken.
The characterization of Fiona is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. At the age of 59, she has proven herself to be an intelligent and competent adjudicator who has won the admiration of her peers for possessing both “’Godly distance [and] devilish understanding’” (15). She herself believes she brings “reasonableness to hopeless situations” (5) though she admits that with “each passing year she inclined a little more to an exactitude some might have called pedantry” (15). Her concept of the good life is revealing: “Economic and moral freedom, virtue, compassion and altruism, satisfying work through engagement with demanding tasks, a flourishing network of personal relationships, earning the esteem of others, pursuing larger meanings to one’s existence, and having at the center of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love” (17).
Fiona is the key to McEwan’s examination of human emotions under stress. “A professional life spent above the affray, advising, then judging, loftily commenting in private on the viciousness and absurdity of divorcing couples, and now she was down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide” (53). Just as the detachment required in her professional life seems to invade her personal life, her personal emotional turmoil during Adam’s case seems to affect her professional judgment. She should be scrupulously rational in deciding “what was reasonable and lawful” (36) in Adam’s situation, but she decides to visit him in the hospital, a decision which she knows is both “a sentimental whim” (37) and an “unorthodox excursion” (96). The repercussions of that visit are far-reaching: Fiona, like her husband, has to face the consequences of disrupting another person’s well-ordered world.
Unfortunately, the behaviour of characters is not always credible. For Jack, a man of 60 years of age, to decide to have an adulterous affair because he and Fiona have not had sex for ‘’seven weeks and a day’” (21) seems ludicrous. Likewise, Fiona’s “impulsive folly” and “ludicrous and shameful transgression” when she is “not prone to wild impulses” (180) may stretch the credulity of some readers, though for me it is the nature of her indiscretion that is problematic. Clearly, McEwan is questioning a person’s ability to totally turn off one’s emotions. When Adam’s hearing opens, Fiona claims, “She no longer had a private life, she was ready to be absorbed” (65), but obviously this is not true. I agree with the author’s opinion, but I question whether Fiona could be “defenseless before [that] moment” (174).
I would not classify this novel as one of McEwan’s best, but there is much in it to recommend. The description of various cases on which Fiona must rule is certainly interesting. For me, since like Fiona I am, “in the infancy of old age” (47), the book has especial appeal with its examination of various aspects of aging. Though Fiona is a family court judge, every parent and anyone working with children and youth will certainly have occasion to question his/her decisions and actions concerning what is best for a child. And certainly we can all use a reminder that kindness is “the essential human ingredient” (8).