Review: The Children Act

Ian McEwan

The Children Act

Given one word to describe Ian McEwan, I’d have to go with excruciating. The tone (elevated and eerie) and density of his novels (to a degree that will try passive readers) ooze with The Children Actanxiety. His protagonists suffer quietly, haunted by a single instance of poor judgment or an absent-minded transgression.

It’s all about moments and forbidden thresholds, the composed intellectual who discards dignity and custom to follow an animal impulse. Be it a father’s momentary lapse in The Child in Time, the sudden violence of The Innocent or the chilling cowardice in Amsterdam, there comes a dissociative moment in every McEwan novel in which a main character is forced to confront their darkest depths.

And then live with the consequences.

Such is the case for Fiona Maye, protagonist of The Children Act, McEwan’s latest novel. Fiona is an experienced judge on the cusp of old age who is questioning her lifetime of restraint (as well as her decision not to reproduce).

We enter her story mid-conversation to discover Fiona reeling from her husband’s proposed (and possibly in-progress) infidelity, just as she’s preparing for a high-profile case with a child’s life in the balance.

Cut to the courtroom, where the precocious teenager is refusing a blood transfusion on the grounds of being a Jehovah’s Witness. Invoking the Children Act of 1989, Fiona gives her ruling, the consequences of which ultimately lead to a spontaneous, classically McEwan mistake, one that risks undoing her marriage, her career and a lifetime of calculated decision-making.

The Children Act is a short, but dense novel, as is usually the case with McEwan. The man is a master of reflection and interiority. The opening chapter encompasses but a moment in a 30-year marriage, but lays bare its successes, failings and a lifetime of insecurities and second-guessing.

McEwan applies this level of care and detail throughout the novel, which may lack the sinister urge of books like The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers or First Love, Last Rites, but certainly channels the disquiet of Enduring Love and Saturday, in which the tragedies unfold in slow motion and a lifetime of torment is distilled into a bitter, lingering moment.

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