The head and the heart
Reason takes on passion in McEwan’s latest
IAN McEwan novels often explore some timely intellectual puzzle. His new one is par for the course. Although not as cleverly plotted as its predecessor, Sweet Tooth, nor as amusing as the one before that, Solar, The Children Act is nevertheless a satisfyingly cerebral entertainment, a fine addition to the corpus of one of England’s best living literary masters. The central conflicts here are reason vs. passion and religion vs. secularism. The protagonist, Fiona Maye, is an accomplished London High Court judge, a confirmed rationalist and secularist, specializing in family-law matters. She is assigned to preside over a thorny case — should a 17-year-old leukemia patient, the precocious and brainy son of Jehovah’s Witnesses, be permitted to decline a life-saving blood transfusion? Meanwhile, Fiona’s history-professor husband asks her blessing for him to sleep with his 28-year-old colleague. He still loves his wife and doesn’t want a divorce; he just wants one last fling at physical passion, which, not surprisingly, has petered out in their 35-year marriage. McEwan has Fiona confront these two challenges — one professional, one personal — in the course of a brisk 220 pages. Almost all of McEwan’s 13 novels have been lean and compact. Witness On Chesil Beach (2007), about youthful sexual ignorance in the early 1960s, and his 1998 Man Booker Prize winner, Amsterdam, a comedy about male narcissism. His longest, and arguably his best, 2002’s Atonement, clocks in at a manageable 350 pages. McEwan takes his title here from a piece of British legislation, the Children’s Act, which says that “the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” Fiona is well aware of the irony of her meeting this serious responsibility while being childless herself. As a younger woman, she was in favour of motherhood, but her ambition intervened. She eventually realized, McEwan writes, “she belonged to the law the way some women had once been the brides of Christ.” Her assumptions are shaken, her prejudices upended, upon meeting the dying boy and his parents. Instead of the unsophisticated rubes she expects, they are thoughtful and well-meaning. The boy himself, Adam, just three months shy of 18 and thus of legal majority, turns out to be confident and accomplished. Fiona and Adam form a quick attachment. Despite the disparities in their age and background, they share a passion for music and poetry. McEwan contrasts the intensity of this inappropriatein relationship with the anger Fiona feels toward her husband, Jack, and also Jack’s experiences with his young would-w be lover. As always in a McEwan novel, the text contains secondary compensations. Giving rein to his autodidact tendencies, McEwan hash done his research into the duties of judgeship. He constructs a couple of extended set pieces which, in their detail and verisimilitude, call to mind the operation scenes conducted by his neurosurgeon protagonist, Henry Perowne, in his 2005 novel Saturday. Both in his work and public life, McEwan has upheld staunch humanist values. He has counted among his friends such vocal atheists as the late journalist Christopher Hitchens and the biologist Richard Dawkins. In that sense we know where McEwan’s sympathies lie regarding the case Fiona must judge. But he is too good a novelist to provide an ending that is cut and dried. The Children Act surprises as much as it entertains. Morley Walker is the former Free Press books editor and
McEwan’s humanist leanings never cloud the crisis of faith in The Children Act.
The ChChildren Act