The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

by Carl Gardner on September 6, 2014

Detail from a photograph by Brian | CreativeCommonsFiona Maye is sixty – and a judge in the Family Division of the High Court. Her husband’s about to leave her for a younger woman, she fears, as a case comes before her that will test both her values, and her judgement. A seventeen year old is refusing desperately needed treatment that would save his life, because his religion – his parents have brought him up to be a Jehovah’s Witness – doesn’t allow blood transfusions. The hospital wants her to order the treatment be carried out in spite of his, and his parents’, opposition. What follows will test both the law and the judge herself.

Like all Ian McEwan’s work, his latest is compelling reading, and this compact book – it’s just over 200 pages in this hardback edition – can easily be got through in a few sessions. I heard McEwan on the radio last week insist it was a “short novel” rather than a novella, length being his criterion. But The Children Act does have the spare simplicity and single-mindedness of a novella.

It’s set in the extremely comfortable world of the successful London upper middle class, a milieu I’d like McEwan to get away from: there is a socially unimaginative feeling about it (a feeling I’ve perhaps carried over to this novel about a “top” London judge from Saturday, McEwan’s novel about a “top” London surgeon) which contrasts unfavourably with the broader world he deals with in earlier works like The Cement Garden and The Innocent. To be fair, from his Guardian piece this weekend McEwan is obviously very alive to some of the clichés he’s playing with – the big case coinciding with a crisis in the detective’s, or in this case the judge’s, private life.

This, Fiona decided as her taxi halted in heavy traffic on Waterloo Bridge, was either about a woman on the edge of a crack-up making a sentimental error of judgement, or it was about a boy delivered from or into the beliefs of his sect by the intimate intervention of the secular court. she didn’t think it could be both. The question was suspended as she looked to her left, downstream towards St. Paul’s. … Beyond desultory small talk as they left the Courts of Justice, they had not spoken. Only proper, to keep a distance.

On law, the novel’s not wholly convincing. I’m no specialist in consent to treatment cases like this involving children, but would there really be a serious argument about “Gillick competence” in the case of someone nearly eighteen? And there’s the odd jarring terminological error, such as “prohibitive steps order” (it’s actually a “prohibited steps order”, because it prohibits anyone from taking specified steps in relation to a child). A judge is said to “sum up” when he’s actually passing sentence.

But these are trivial cavils from someone whose head’s full of legal. The Children Act is a fair attempt at getting inside the world of law (or “the law”, as the book consistently calls it). Indeed, the novel’s title alone is a relief, and may do a little to offset the misconception widespread among the public (and book reviewers) that the legislation is called the “Children’s” Act. It’s especially interesting that McEwan is attracted to the prose of legal judgments and to the way citation of older decisions can resemble literary reference. What doesn’t come across is the way precedent operates as a framework for systematic reasoning.

My only serious criticism of McEwan’s approach to law relates to his tangential treatment of criminal justice, in a passage near the end of the book which, going by his Guardian piece, stems from a particular incident which I think has put him on the side of those campaigning against the law of joint enterprise. Fair enough. But McEwan seems as a result to see criminal law as institutionally unjust, in contrast to family law’s nuance and honest imperfection. I wonder whether these black-and-white feelings would survive much time spent in criminal courts.

McEwan insults the “perfectly competent” legal aid lawyers who do most to combat the injustice that angers him, when he implies late in the book that a privately paid silk (who happens also to be a jolly sensitive singer of Lieder) must be more committed, and better. This is the moment when McEwan’s personal experience of criminal justice collides with his arguably limited social outlook. I myself would advise no one to spend £20,000 on mitigation by Mark Berner QC. While there’s plenty of room for a serious novelist like McEwan to tackle the criminal justice system, this injury-time kick at its shins carries little moral weight.

But let me return to the things I admire about the novel, which outweigh my parochial reservations. Setting the book’s conclusion against the drama of Mrs Justice Maye’s concert performance is simply ludicrous when you think about it, having put the book down. Yet McEwan makes it seem natural, Fiona’s musical personality having been made essential from early on. Only a brilliant writer of fiction can get away so persuasively with such contrivance. His use of Newcastle and its memories to determine Fiona’s actions in a key passage is a similar device.

She felt unpleasantly light-headed, emptied out, all meaning gone. The blasphemous notion came to her that it didn’t much matter either way whether the boy lived or died. Everything would be much the same. Profound sorrow, bitter regret, perhaps, fond memories, then life would plunge on and all three would mean less and less as those who loved him aged and died, until they meant nothing at all. Religions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a great distance, none obviously higher, more important, truer than another. What was to judge?

Saturday is the obvious comparator to this book, because its main character inhabits the same social world, because of the medical emergency both he and Fiona must deal with, and because a poem plays a key role in both stories. I don’t think the parallels are coincidental. While “secular law versus faith” is the obvious surface concern of this novel, I read The Children Act as in a sense a companion piece to Saturday. It seems a world away from the Iraq dilemma that forms the background to that book, but I think it’s in part a reflection on moral issues raised by that war, a decade on, and which arise again now in the Middle East. Is it right to “intervene” to save life? Would it make any difference? And how might it affect both the intervener and the intervened upon? The Children Act is a compressed study of the responsibility to protect, and the importance of detachment.

This is Ian McEwan’s most profound minor piece. It doesn’t rank with Atonement (the best I’ve read of his books) or rival his early novels, and it’s not as affecting as the best, early sections of the recent Sweet Tooth. But it’s much more satisfying in its ideas than Saturday or On Chesil Beach, more focused than the highly entertaining Solar, and more morally penetrating than Amsterdam. I recommend it.

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