Published by Nan A. Talese
Publication date: September 9th 2014
Ian McEwan is one of those authors who can blend matters of life-and-death with everyday issues and give both equal weight. In his newest novel, The Children Act, he displays his skill with his elegant renderings of the life of Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in London. Maye presides in family court over the type of cases that bring out great emotion but she is widely known for her even-handed, incisive decisions. In the novel’s opening scene she is notified of a case that needs immediate attention as the child in question, who is suffering from a rare form of leukemia, will die without a much needed blood transfusion in the next few days. His parents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, are refusing the transfusion and the boy, who is seventeen, is refusing as well. It is up to Maye to decide if the hospital has the right to override the refusals and save his life.
When Maye gets the call about this case she is in the midst of listening to her husband Jack announce that after 35 years he wants an open marriage and is going to have an affair. Less than five pages in and already the tension is so thick it has a physical presence. We watch as she tries to compartmentalize the intellectual details of her work away from the emotional impact of a betrayal. As her mind whirls over all the details, thoughts, questions, and responses she might have, it returns to the many things she has done for him and given to him.
These offerings represented only a fraction of the happiness she urged on him, and sex was only one part of that fraction, and only latterly a failure, elevated by him into a mighty injustice.
When she tells him this is not a possibility for her, Jack leaves. She knows where he’s gone, knows who the woman is, but when he returns the next day after only one night, full of regret and wanting to save their marriage, her emotions are not necessarily what one would expect.
Then it came to her plainly what she felt about Jack’s return. So simple. It was disappointment that he had not stayed away. Just a little longer. Nothing more than that. Disappointment.
And yet, through McEwan’s portrayal of Maye, they are not completely surprising. She is a woman for whom the mind is paramount over the heart. Not that she is heartless but she has clear expectations of her life and the people in it and cannot understand why they can’t play out their roles. She has loved Jack and taken care of him and if a component of their marriage has fallen away he should accept it. And, if he was going to leave, shouldn’t he have done so for long enough that she could be alone to process her thoughts and get some space from the emotional intensity of the act?
Instead of any big scene, they try and return to their old life albeit with a certain coldness and distance. Maye’s mind is focused on the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ family. She goes to see the boy, as he is almost at the age of consent, to get a better idea of what are his wishes and what are those of his parents. She renders a judgment and has no idea of its impact on her own life until it is too late.
Maye’s marriage and the teenage boy are the focus of The Children Act and McEwan uses them to sift through a number of themes—the personal versus professional life, parental and religious rights, and what marriage means. Each is a complex issue on its own but McEwan lets the narrative find its own level from within the mind of Fiona Maye. It’s not just the understanding of the complex and contradictory emotions these issues evoke that makes McEwan’s writing so intense, it’s the way he writes it. Just as Maye’s decisions are razor sharp so is his prose as, with a surgeon’s skill, he delves into the mind, discovering, in the darkest corners, the thoughts and emotions we do not want to admit, leaving us to recognize ourselves on the page.
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