At just 221 pages, The Children Act by Ian McEwan cuts to the chase of its relatively short and incomplete story, so it seems only fitting to do the same in this review: as compelling as parts of this book are, it doesn’t work as a whole. Instead, it’s the world it makes accessible to the reader and the scenarios it invites you to debate that make this a book I would recommend.
Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in the Family Division whose husband Jack, an academic, has just informed her of his desire to have an affair, a mid-life crisis justified by the recent lack of sex in their marriage. While a promising start to a novel, this bit of personal drama gives way to Fiona’s much more interesting professional life. Soon after Jack makes a fool of himself – for which she gives him the boot – Fiona is presented with the case of Adam Henry, a nearly 18 year old Jehovah’s Witness who requires a blood transfusion to cure his cancer. His parents refuse on religious grounds, so the case comes before the Fiona. In an uncharacteristic move, Fiona visits Adam at the hospital after having heard arguments from all sides but his. The two share an emotional moment over a ballad. Without spoiling the rest, I’ll just say that the ramifications of her ruling have a lasting effect on Fiona. And that’s pretty much it with regards to plot.
But what can we say about Jack, Adam, or any other character in the book? Not much, other than that they are props in service of Fiona, who herself falls short of human. Despite spending days at work and nights at home with her, I felt more compelled by her position and the difficult positions it puts her in than by her as a woman in a crumbling marriage (the reasons for this, besides the 6 sex-less weeks, proving bland). She is more a personification of the Law: an entity that upholds order, logic, and firmly set rules above all else and that makes little room for emotion or rash behavior. It means well, as Fiona does for Adam, for every child whose case she presides over, and for her marriage. But as Fiona knows all too well, the law only works to an extent. And if that’s frustratingly vague, I apologize. But I still want you to read this book!
In all, while McEwan, graceful writer as he is, fails to give us a story with fleshed out characters in which something happens – in fact, this feels more like a snapshot of a bigger story that could have been told – he does not disappoint. He makes accessible to us laypersons the Royal Courts of Justice through Fiona Maye, whose day-to-day activities I never imagined I’d be interested in. The debates brought forward via McEwan’s rich and captivating presentation of family court cases, legal precedents, and complex rulings take you down fascinating avenues of thought and discussion. And that surely is worth a 221-page read.