In 1989, the United Kingdom’s parliament passed The Children Act to ensure that when families and legal guardians fail the young the legal authorities are mandated to step in and protect them. As the title indicates, this book is about that law and how its implementation affects the lives of those touched by it.
When I started reading this book, I knew it involved a judge dealing with the case of a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with end-stage leukemia who, along with his parents, did not want the blood transfusion recommended by his oncologists. I did not understand why McEwan was spending the first part of the book describing in detail the state of mind of Fiona Mayes, British High Court Justice of the Family Division. We do not encounter Adam Henry, the young man, until we are one-fifth into the book. Then I understood how important Fiona’s state-of-mind pre-Adam is to the story development.
By the time Fiona decides to visit Adam in his hospital bed, her husband Jack has left her to have an affair with a younger woman. After 50 days (yes, he kept count) without any meaningful physical contact with Fiona, Jack asked her permission to have an affair — his first in their 35-year marriage. She denies permission. He packed a bag and left that night. She changed the locks the next day. As she is walking home that evening to an empty house, McEwan describes her inner turmoil, “An abandoned fifty-nine-year-old woman, in the infancy of old age, just learning to crawl.” The book is filled with stunning phrases such as this — brilliant use of language throughout.
“The Children Act” is Fiona’s story, told from her viewpoint. I think McEwan did an excellent job in development of all the characters in the book, but I was especially impressed with his description of the functioning of the adolescent mind. In the letters that Adam sends to Fiona, teenaged invincibility radiates from every word. He also examines the role ofparents, religion and legal authority in society. Brilliantly, I would say. The ruling that Fiona hands down in Adam’s case is sterling in its use of language as well as regard for the child’s well-being. It addresses the role of religion, parental influence, exposure to alternative world viewpoints or lack thereof, immaturity, in determining the welfare and dignity of a child’s life.
If you read “Atonement” and enjoyed it, you might appreciate this book as well. There are long narrative passages that reveal details of other cases she is dealing with as well as Fiona’s attitudes and her self-examination. She is questioning everything — her childlessness, devotion to the law, the looming dissolution of her marriage, even her ability to play piano, which is her soul-refreshing retreat from the court room.
A word of caution if you are deeply religious: I think it is pretty clear McEwan is not. The pivotal subplot involves a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but Fiona’s other cases involve Orthodox Jews, Muslims and Catholics who have all failed their children due to their religious beliefs. Interestingly, no agnostic or atheist families seem to need family court in McEwan’s world. Still, Fiona is an interesting character who is not only a devoted brilliant judge but a wonderful pianist who cares about her extended family, her country and even the environment. This book should be great for discussion groups.
If you not have not read any of McEwan’s novels, “The Children Act” will illustrate why he is considered one of Britain’s best novelists, deserving of his many accolades.
Rating is 4.0/5.0. “The Children Act” is available just about everywhere in all formats. It is currently in the Collier County Public Library system, awaiting your request. Admire the wordsmithery.
Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher as well as various occupations in the health care field. She shares a hometown with Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, walking on the beach, reading, movies and writing, are among her pursuits outside of work. She is self employed and works from her Naples home.