When picking my holiday reading this year, one book that was front and centre on my list was Ian McEwan’s latest, The Children Act. I was intrigued by the premise, had seen some positive reviews indicating it was a complex and compelling story, and confidently expected to enjoy it.
Most reviewers will tell you that The Children Act is either about Jehovah’s Witnesses and their belief structure; or about the role of the law in regulating the impact of private beliefs; or about a judge whose marriage is in crisis. Some have a bet each way and tell you it’s about all of these things at once. I disagree, although all of these motifs are certainly present in the novel, albeit, in my view, shallowly. I think The Children Act is actually about middle-aged rancour and loneliness, and I think McEwan misses the mark in fully exploring would could have been a very powerful treatment of these themes.
Although he started his writing career with a run of Gothic-macabre short stories, McEwan is perhaps best known for his 2001 novel Atonement, which gave rise to the hugely popular 2007 film of the same name. Atonement is a book about which I also have mixed feelings (indeed, I actually preferred the film, for all its flaws, to the novel). Its frequently lauded virtues – its exploration of guilt, responsibility and redemption; its incisive class consciousness; its play with authorial voice and the rewriting of a life – are, in my reading, not as potent as they could have been, watered down by incomplete characterisation and too-frequent nods to conventional plotting techniques.
I think The Children Act is less than fully successful for me for much the same reasons. It’s a relatively slight volume, and while I am all for brevity where it is sufficient to carry the story, this is a plot that would have benefited from more time spent on character development, more time sitting with the nuances and subtleties of feeling, and more focus on what the real story under the insistent plot arcs might have been.
So, to the basic plot of The Children Act. The novel focuses on Fiona Maye, a middle-aged, highly respected judge of the Family Division in the UK. She receives notice one day of a petition that a hospital wishes to bring seeking an order that they can administer a blood transfusion to a 17-year-old leukaemia patient against his parents’ wishes. The family are devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their faith precludes the transfusion of blood products.
Concurrently with this, Fiona’s 30-year marriage to an academic is struggling. He declares, the night before she will need to determine the hospital matter, that he is going to have an affair with a 28-year-old called Melanie as some kind of “last grab at the ring” 59-year-old-man-thing; she, understandably, isn’t impressed, and asks him to leave.
McEwan is relatively subtle about it, but he clearly allows Fiona’s distress at the disarray of her personal life to shape the way she handles the case before her. This isn’t simply her husband’s defection, but the already-introduced, soon-to-be-amplified, theme of Fiona’s regret at her own lack of children. Here is where I contend that the book starts to be interestingly about middle-aged loneliness, about the full realisation of the island that is the self, and the vision of decline that lies ahead; but, driven by a fast-moving plot and his desire to cram it down into a short volume, McEwan doesn’t develop this theme fully, instead charging on to the next set of conundra.
Uncharacteristically for Fiona, she decides to go and meet with the boy himself in hospital; Adam, the devout, clever, sensitive 17-year-old, makes a profound impact on her. (Yes, the loco materna suggestion is thoroughly underlined). His own clearly expressed wishes are to not be transfused, but McEwan manages to tease out some big red flags in the conversation, that seed the clues as to how Fiona will eventually decide. Adam talks about the elders of his church visiting, and telling him what a blessing his martyrdom and example has been and will be to the whole congregation; he tells Fiona of his sheltered life in the close-knit, exclusive community in which he has been raised. He talks too much about the glory of God for comfort, and not just because he’s using a faith language that is foreign to most readers. There’s a hectic intensity in Adam’s speech that sits uneasily with the notion of truly free will.
It comes as no particular narrative surprise when Fiona rules that the hospital can transfuse Adam against his and his parents’ wishes. Her judgement is clear and incisive, and also calm, emotionless, devoid of the human feeling that it discusses. McEwan, like his character, remains carefully neutral on the subject of JW beliefs and practices, noting only that they are clearly sincerely held and deeply felt. Ultimately, though, Fiona rules in favour of saving a life in spite of itself, and Adam’s life is (temporarily) saved.
It’s from this moment that I really felt the book begin to lose its way. Until this pivotal stage, McEwan had been showing signs of building a really interesting exploration of faith, compulsion, loneliness, identity, and mortality – big themes, but ones that his frame gave him ample scope to unpick. Instead, the book starts to flounder into an extended treatment of “middle aged marriage in crisis” territory, which was, to me, a much less novel and interesting tack. Ultimately, I didn’t much care if Fiona and her unpleasant husband reunited (partly, I suspect, because Fiona herself didn’t care as much as she thought she did; she shows flashes of the interesting discovery that loneliness and regret are not assuaged simply by being linked to someone, but, again, these are not developed or followed through).
The reintroduction of Adam into the storyline, and his experience of losing his faith and with it, his sense of self and purpose, has the potential to be really intriguing. However, again, McEwan elides the big questions around what impact loss of faith and certainty might have on a person in favour of a predictable and unimaginative plot twist where he tracks Fiona down at a country house. There were so many ways this scene could have played out, the very least interesting of which is the Oepidal touch which is what McEwan actually employs. I found it disjunctive, jarring, and out of step with the genuine sense of disturbance that Adam’s re-emergence had created.
The conclusion narrowly avoids tying a neat bow – the good don’t all end happily, although the main protagonist at least ends with some potential for redemptive change – but I was left, at the end, with the sense that this book feels much slighter, less significant, than it should, given its themes. It isn’t a bad read – McEwan’s technical skills can’t be faulted, and the writing style is engaging and incisive. It’s not, however, the book I expected it to be, or the book I think it could have been, had a few more layers been pierced below the richly promising surface.