This was my first Ian McEwan read, after unsuccessfully attempting Atonement a few years ago. I think I needed those few years to mature into his writing and fully appreciate the topics he tackles and the skill and elegance with which he does it. The Children Act was a frank and compelling look at a High Court case, and I hope it won’t be the last of his books that I read.
The story follows High Court judge Fiona. Her marriage begins to fall apart when her husband asks her permission to embark on an affair with a younger woman, and the reader follows her as she navigates not just the turmoils of her marriage, but her working life in the Family Division of the High Court. We are exposed to a snapshot of the hundreds of cases which go through the High Court, small vignettes which would have a profound effect on all involved, from tragically deformed babies to cancerous teenagers and overprotective parents who are somewhat blinded by their religious beliefs.
The main case is that of Adam Henry, a 17-year-old boy who has leukemia, and will die if he doesn’t receive vital treatment and a blood transfusion. Adam comes from a strict family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he and his parents adamantly refuse the transfusion, leading it to the court to in. With life or death hanging in the balance, and her own domestic issues perhaps making her more sentimental, Fiona decides that she must meet the boy in person before coming to a verdict and goes to visit him in hospital. It’s an inspiring and emotionally charged meeting, which has unexpected repercussions on both sides.
The book is written in the third person, and while we are given a glimpse into Fiona’s though and feelings, McEwan maintains a somewhat detached feel which makes it feel a little bleak at times and meant that I didn’t feel as emotionally involved as I’d perhaps have liked. I’ve seen reviews calling this book ‘pleasant’ or ‘a joy to read’. It may be a beautifully written book, but for me this wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience. It’s a powerful book, which offers an important look at the complexities of human nature. It’s a worthwhile read – but it can be difficult, it’s one I felt I needed to take breaks from at times. This quote from the book pretty much sums up my experience reading it:
“That the world should be filled with such detail, such tiny points of human frailty, threatened to crush her, and she had to look away.”
The main plot – that of a teenager willing to die by refusing a blood transfusion, and the media frenzy surrounding it – could have become a melodramatic way of enforcing one’s own religious views in the hands of another author. Not with McEwan. With elegant prose, he handles sensitive issues with skill, elegance and respect, unravelling the story without pretext. Ultimately, it’s down to the reader to form their own opinions of this drama’s events, and you’re sure to have some one way or another. This is a short but insightful read, which would be ideal for book club discussions.