Longtime Ian McEwan fan Loretta Barnard shares her disappointment in McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act, in TBS’ latest #bookreview
The Children Act
You know when people ask if you could have dinner with anyone from history, alive or dead, and then lively discussion follows about why you chose who you chose? (For the record, my choices are William Shakespeare, Ludwig van Beethoven, Antonio Vivaldi, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mary Wollstonecraft and Bessie Smith.) Now, if you were to ask me who, out of writers still living, I would dine with, I’d choose Tim Winton, Toni Morrison, Peter Tremayne, Paul Auster, Alice Hoffman and Ian McEwan.
Just think, Enduring Love, On Chesil Beach, Atonement, The Comfort of Strangers, Sweet Tooth – pretty much everything Ian McEwan’s written, I’ve enjoyed. His writing is just so pleasurable to read; the words skip off the page and into both your conscious and subconscious mind.
So it was with a sense of tingling excitement that I picked up McEwan’s latest literary offering, The Children Act, only to be disappointed. Indeed by the end of the book I felt a little let down by one of my favourite authors.
It’s not that the writing is bad – far from it – his prose is wonderful, crisp, clean and compact. It’s just that the main story is weak.
The Children Act tells the story of Fiona, a High Court judge working in the Family Court, whose marriage is in trouble. The descriptions of her private life are insightful and touching. Although he still loves her, her husband wants to have an affair, and while she is angry and upset about it all, she is also resigned to it in a funny sort of way. The scenes with her husband are well-observed, perceptive and identifiable. There’s no doubt that one of McEwan’s skills is meticulous attention to minutiae, in this case the minutiae of a marriage.
In every day of her professional life, Fiona confronts the worst in family breakdowns and moral and ethical dilemmas, such as whether to allow the separation of conjoined twins when separation will result in the death of one of the twins, or how to award custody when both parents are equally competent – not a job for the faint-hearted! The author has certainly researched the area; but sometimes it seems too much, coming across as lists and lists of scenarios faced by judges dealing in family matters. What I’m trying to say is that the research is too in-your-face, there’s no subtlety about it, and the reader feels that it’s the author listing the cases, not the protagonist.
The main thrust of The Children Act is that Fiona has to decide whether an almost-18-year-old Jehovah’s Witness patient should be forcibly given a blood transfusion that will save his life, even though such a procedure is against his and his family’s faith. The courtroom scenes are thorough and realistic, and McEwan has, with his usual proficiency, not only confronted the legal/medical issues, but also the emotions surrounding such a case. I didn’t particularly care for the portrayal of the doctors, finding it just a little cold, but perhaps that’s quibbling.
Most of us are already broadly aware of the issues – do you override the wishes of the juvenile and his family and save the boy Adam, or do you allow that he has the mental capacity and maturity to make the decision to refuse the blood transfusion? Fiona visits Adam in hospital. It’s a great scene, and McEwan is a master at describing the vortex of emotions that flood the judge, the boy’s nurses and the boy himself. She makes her judgment, and far be it from me to be a plot spoiler!
But it is what happens after the judgment that I found a little implausible. I just couldn’t see that it would happen at the level it did, and found myself harrumphing in disagreement.
By the end of The Children Act, both Fiona’s marital situation and Adam’s situation are resolved for better or worse. The ending will satisfy some but it left me a bit “blah”.
My overriding feeling was that this really should have been a short story. It is a short novel, but it’s a bit padded out for my liking. Excellent writing but a weak plot. I expect many will disagree with this assessment. In spite of my ambivalence about The Children Act, I will certainly be reading McEwan’s next book. I’m a die-hard fan and one disappointment will not change that.