The Children’s Act – Ian McEwan (A Review)
This is another gem from the English author, Ian McEwan-a wonderful novel that needs to be celebrated as one of McEwan’s strongest works of fiction.
The novelist’s light shines on Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, who is respected for the skill in which she handled many difficult cases in the family court. McEwan elegantly and elaborately explains the complex world and details of law-the judges and lawyers’ obsession with detail and how they fastidiously pore over facts, sifting what is material from what is not.
But, the story is not just about the intricate workings of the law, or its triumph over religion, but more pointedly about the problems in Fiona’s personal life and character. As is common in life, something happens that serves to reveal the demons in our souls.
Fiona is asked to adjudicate a case involving a teenage Jehovah’s Witness, Adam Henry, whose parents had refused him blood transfusion- treatment that according to the doctors would save his life. Fiona visits the boy in hospital, and is impressed by the boy’s gifts and talents – his innate intelligence, and his love for poetry and music. This is not a child the courts will leave to die- the religious beliefs of the parents and their son’s support of them, notwithstanding.
Fiona Maye reaches her judgment-she overrules the family’s wishes, and orders that the boy receives the treatment necessary to save his life. But, in saving a life, Fiona has to deal with a child who is not just happy to be alive but desperately yearns for parental love and affection.
Adam is not getting this at home. He lives with two parents who were prepared to let him die for the sake of upholding their religious beliefs. Even on his return home from the hospital, with his health almost fully restored, instead of a joyful reception from a grateful family, he has to deal with endless and frequent rows. Unsurprisingly, Adam sees in Fiona the perfect antidote to his poisoned world.
He asks her if he could lodge with her and her husband for a while. Fiona, always looking at life from ‘her elevated position at the top of a grand staircase’, sends the boy back to his dysfunctional world. Fiona, ever the warrior that rushes forth barehanded to fight injustice and has even gallantly saved the lives of those marked to die, was herself paradoxically unable to demonstrate love-even to the children that she fiercely fought for.
Her own childlessness was a deliberate decision, since motherhood would stand in the way of her lofty professional ambitions. Fiona preferred the company of her bewigged colleagues to that of children. As her fertile years of her life rapidly passed, though alarmed she was simply too busy to notice.
Even the visits of her grandnephews to her home didn’t pique her maternal instincts, but only served to remind her ‘how hard it would be to squeeze an infant into her kind of life. ‘ The day ‘she was sworn in by the Lord Chief Justice and took her oath of allegiance. . . she knew the game was up, she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides to Christ’.
This is what tragically Adam later realized: the esteemed High Court judge Fiona Maye was the incarnation of extreme selfishness -‘pursuing her own end, pretending to herself that her career was not in essence self-gratification’. Fighting for the children was nothing more than an act and a prop in her drama of blind ambition.
One has to wonder if she had her own children, whether they would not have needed to be saved from her as Adam had to be from his own parents. Curiously, the author mentions that though Fiona Mayes was an accomplished musician, she could not play jazz. The latter is an art form that requires not just skill, improvisation and innovation: but also passion-the open expression of human feelings.
It is no wonder then that after thirty-five years Fiona’s husband, Jack, was prepared to pull the shutters on their sterile marriage- he had fallen for the musical embrace of another woman. Even when her exasperated husband asked her: ‘Fiona, when did we last make love?’ She couldn’t remember. Romance had been replaced by the many demanding, lurid and complex cases in the court documents strewn on her desk.
Where was love to fit in all this? Thankfully, Jack changes his mind and is prepared to accept his wife on her own selfish terms. But Adam’s fate is drastically different. The kiss he exchanged with Fiona, far from bringing joy and hope, leads to despair, torment and tragedy.
Fiona still needs to be complemented for spending a lifetime defending the defenseless-whatever drove her. It is an admirable, necessary and scant virtue. Whether she was also a victim of a loveless childhood in a home where her mother was frequently in hospital with undefined illnesses is not clearly stated. But the secrets of our homes are often apparent in our lives. They are seldom erased by the passage of time, and even by the professional heights we scale.
The Children’s Act is a powerful and an even psychological, work of fiction that is comparable to the very best. Once again McEwan’s rare and singular writing gifts are apparent.
His novel speaks the most harrowing truth about the fanaticism, duplicity and abhorrent hatefulness that enwrap children’s lives. It holds an unflattering mirror, and is a fierce polemic against our indifferent world.