The head and the heart

Rea­son takes on pas­sion in McEwan’s lat­est

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

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

arts colum­nist.

AN­NALENA MCAFEE PHOTO

McEwan’s hu­man­ist lean­ings never cloud the cri­sis of faith in The Chil­dren Act.

The ChChil­dren Act

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