Plot: A leading High Court judge, Fiona Maye, is called on to decide whether a seventeen-year-old Jehovah’s Witness may refuse a life-saving blood transfusion. The law is both clear and unclear, depending on a highly normative judgement from an impartial justice, and the decision turns on Fiona’s own exceptional ability to determine the facts and decide what is in the best interests of the boy, without being swayed by her own or other’s prejudices and religious beliefs. Adding to this pressure is the contrast of her own personal life, where her long marriage is undergoing a slow disintegration.
Verdict: Ian McEwan’s latest book is both brilliant and banal by turns; worth reading, but frustrating in its unevenness. Many readers may be put off by the cold, reserved main character through which the story is told – but the perspective is an important one, recounting a vital narrative from the point of view of a woman who must preside over questions of life and death.
Review: Ian McEwan is a perfect, crystalline author; vivisecting the visceral morass of human relationships and dilemmas with the precision of a surgeon. He generally takes as his subject the moment of existential crisis, when an individual’s carefully built world view or tapestry of beliefs is undone by pressing external forces. Within his previous work it is often a tragedy involving children – such as in The Child in Time (1987) or Enduring Love (1997) – but equally as often it is a confrontation between a deeply held, cherished belief and the coldest realities of the world. For McEwan, himself something of an uncompromising rationalist, those cold realities frequently stem from the impersonal inevitabilities of scientific knowledge and the practices that associate themselves with them, confronting comforting but superstitious religious beliefs. This is again the case in The Children Act, where a highly rational and impartial High Court judge is asked to grant an order to perform a blood transfusion on a seventeen-year-old Jehovah’s Witness against his wishes, the wishes of his family, and that of his church. The resulting drama is riveting.
Unfortunately that insightful and fascinating novella is elegantly but ultimately detrimentally welded to an old-age drama of marriage disintegration and sexual foolishness; wrapped up in a cliché of the cold, hard, rational being confused in the affairs of the heart. McEwan’s protagonist is, in the first novella, brilliantly portrayed as a highly intelligent and thoughtful individual – to the point where I had the joyful experience of feeling outwitted by her insight, even as she takes us through her reasoning within some fascinating cases that are recounted. One involves the separation of conjoined twins, who would die if left alone, but guaranteeing the certainty of death for one if separated to let the other live. McEwen skilfully evokes the heart of these dilemmas, the hidden value-laden beat that seems to govern so much of the decision making within the Family Law, even as he precisely conveys the logic of the law which sets those bounds. This unfortunately makes the second novella, that of marital collapse and divorce, ultimately unconvincing – as the judge, Fiona, is unable to come to terms with her husband’s late life desire to see other women. That a strong, fiercely independent, emotionally strong woman is suddenly unable to confront her husband or disentangle the demands of her marriage seems utterly out of place; undermining the admirable strength and fortitude Fiona portrays in her professional life. While McEwan begs off with the limp protest that we might be lions in our professional lives, but lambs in our personal lives, I personally found unconvincing. However, he relies on this narrative to set up the tragic and ultimately unnecessary dénouement of the novel.
Similarly, his sensitivity in portraying the respectful clash of the law and religion is present but limited. The novel is at its best when both sides of the debate are able to present their arguments within a hastily convened special hearing, one that needs to determine the fate of the young man within the space of days or risk his imminent death. We are also privy to Fiona’s thoughts on the matter as the cases are presented, which are surprising in the gravitas they attribute to beliefs she obviously does not hold. There is a fierce, legal debate of ideas which – at least for me – forms the emotional and intellectual core of the book, despite occurring rather early and indicating McEwan’s greater but less interesting focus on the consequences of the decision. However, the delightful and sincere tension between fundamentally different systems of belief, the slow and stealthy imposition of normative expectations, and the demand that a judgement must be reached which will inevitably compromise one party or another is quickly frittered away. McEwan can’t resist the temptation to portray views he is implicitly unsympathetic with as hypocritical, or motivated by darker forces, or stupidity in contrast to the clear thinking he obviously admires within his point-of-view character.
The less said about the other novella the better; that narrative is about as interesting and appealing as the thought of Fiona’s husband’s shrivelled, greying privates – which inexplicably popped into my head during Fiona’s lengthy descriptions of her husband’s absurdities. Do not expect a similarly balanced case to be presented here; McEwan engages ironically and unintentionally engages in the ‘have your cake and eat it too’ logic in portraying this tale that he criticised within other characters of the novel. It is a shame, because there could be something fascinating to be found here too – with attacks on the legal fiction of impartiality of within the judiciary, like those of Iris Marion Young, becoming more common and central to certain areas of legal debate. That President Obama has made a strong case for diversity on the Supreme Court bench, appointing candidates of widely varying background and experience, indicates that the issue of a judge’s experience, their pasts, their private lives is becoming central to our conception of the law and the sort of decisions we demand that it makes. Sadly, McEwan does little with this material; contenting himself to a largely by-the-numbers portrait of a cloistered English society that nibbles canapés and snipes about their own amateur classical music performances. Just as McEwan’s writing is periodically marred by typical English authorial tics and idioms, so too is this rudimentary story of privilege and divorce.
Which is not to say that this is a novel that should be left ignored or unread; quite the contrary. Despite these flaws in the glass, McEwan has produced a novel which remains provocative and thought provoking; through the insights of a character who, despite being fictional, inspires admiration.