December Issue 2015
Book Review: The Children Act
Statute laws and emotions influence the course of individual lives in disparate but interconnected ways and often with unpredictable consequences. Ian McEwan explores this complex dynamic of law and emotion in a novel which reads like music and is infused with wry tenderness.
The Children Act of 1989, from which McEwan’s thirteenth novel derives its title, decrees the welfare of the child to be of paramount consideration.
Some of the seemingly irresolvable cases involving children that come before Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in London, include Orthodox Jewish parents with divergent views with regard to their daughters’ education; a strict Muslim man from Morocco who wishes to remove his daughter from her English mother in order to bring her up in Rabat; newly-born, conjoined twins who require surgical separation in order that one of them survives.
Fiona is married, childless and 59 years old. She is well-regarded by her peers for her astute judgments written in “crisp prose, almost ironic, almost warm.” She exercises her sagacity in the interpretation of facts in family disputes of an extreme nature. She believes she brings “reasonableness to hopeless situations.”
The story opens with Fiona embroiled in a conjugal crisis that her husband, Jack, has confronted her with. He wishes to enter an extra-marital relationship and wants to be “honest” about it with her but she finds this unacceptable. Amidst the disturbance in her hitherto composed marital life, Fiona has to decide on a case of the highest urgency.
A 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness named Adam Henry is dying of leukaemia. In line with the tenets of their faith, he and his parents are refusing to let the hospital give Adam a life-saving blood transfusion. It seems that both parents and son accept the inevitable death that will result because of their refusal. Adam is three months short of his eighteenth birthday and does not have the legal right to decide against transfusion. The question arises whether his parents’ decision is in violation of The Children Act.
In light of the urgency, Fiona makes an unprecedented decision to visit the hospital in order to assess Adam’s state of mind. Their encounter is a poignant one and its consequences have a significant emotional impact on both of them.
McEwan writes with flowing prose. He uses a free, indirect style of narration to graze just above and beneath the surface of his characters’ thoughts. Although his writing is highly descriptive, he avoids over-narration of the inner state, leaving it somewhat elusive and mysterious — a device that charges the text with an undercurrent of tension.
Music is an important component in the development of the narrative. The shifting parts of the novel interplay as movements of a deftly handled musical composition. The main characters all bear a connection to music. Fiona is herself an accomplished piano player. She and Adam connect over an impromptu performance of a Ballad during her hospital visit. Jack is a jazz lover.
The description of places is highly atmospheric with reinforcement of the musical theme running through the narrative:
“…over the drumming of raindrops on her umbrella, she heard the lilting andante, walking pace, a rare marking in Bach, a beautiful carefree air over a strolling bass, her own steps falling in with the unearthly light-hearted melody as she went by Great Hall.”
There is much to reflect on in this novel of 213 pages with its examination of the dichotomies of faith and rationality, tradition and modernity. Many philosophical questions come out of the story, most poignantly the one regarding the responsibility of the state and of the individual in determining the affirmation or negation of a human life.