Book review: The Children Act

Ian McEwanThe first page of this book by Ian McEwan is a classic, an intense study of Fiona Maye, High Court judge, a family law specialist, married, childless. The Children Act is the story of a slice of her life and how an upset with her husband coincides with a particular case. Each event impacts on the other and I was left considering how our legal system expects consistent wisdom from its judges when they have human frailties.

Before the story starts, there is a quotation from the Children Act, the piece of law according to which Judge Maye must compose her judgements: ‘When a court determines any question with respect to… the upbringing of a child… the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.’ But for Fiona Maye, her involvement with this case goes beyond the courtroom.

Adam is a teenager whose religious upbringing prevents him having a blood transfusion as part of his treatment for leukaemia. Fiona Maye routinely moves from one case to the next, digesting complicated information in an efficient, calm and clinical manner, but something about Adam’s situation is different. Her judgement will effectively decide if Adam shall live or die. She doesn’t know it, but it will also have implications for her own life. Is her decision affected by the fact that, nearing sixty, she is starting to feel her childlessness? As she hides from the stress of her husband’s departure in search of sexual adventure, she buries herself in her documents, in Adam’s case. Does personal judgement combine with her judicial process? Doesn’t it always?

This is a slim book about a difficult subject. McEwan writes without a spare word but his prose is more emotional and intense because of that. He concentrates on the two storylines – Adam’s medical situation, and Fiona’s separation from her husband – without extraneous detail about Fiona’s life. The legal case is set out somewhat drily, but then the law is dry. This is not a John Grisham legal thriller, it is a considered fictional examination of what it is like for a lawmaker to sit in judgement while at the same time retaining the humanity which qualified the judge for the job in the first place.

This cover is my hardback version, a Christmas 2014 gift which has been languishing on my shelf until a friend asked me for my opinion. Why did I wait so long to pick it up?

If you like ‘The Children Act’, try these thought-provoking novels:-:-
‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
‘The Signature of All Things’ by Elizabeth Gilbert
‘The House at the Edge of the World’ by Julia Rochester

‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan [UK: Jonathan Cape] Buy now

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