Written by on February 19, 2015

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

For a book only slightly over 200 pages, The Children Act packs a substantial wallop. A complex medical ethics issue, a detailed view into Britain’s High Court and social services system, and the emotional fallout from an accomplished female judge’s decision, decades earlier, not to have children, are all examined in this novel. And that’s not even getting into her husband’s announcement that now, before he drops dead (he’s 60), he wants “one big passionate affair.”

Self-pity in others embarrassed her, and she wouldn’t have it now. She was having a third drink instead. But she poured only a token measure, added much water and Children Act coverreturned to her couch. Yes, it had been the kind of conversation of which she should have taken notes. Important to remember, to measure the insult carefully. When she threatened to end the marriage if he went ahead, he had simply repeated himself, told her again how he loved her, always would, that there was no other life but this, that his unmet sexual needs caused him great unhappiness, that there was this one chance and he wanted to take it with her knowledge and, so he hoped, her assent. He was speaking to her in the spirit of openness. He could have done it “behind her back.” Her thin, unforgiving back.

The medical ethics issue involves a 17-year-old boy, a Jehovah’s Witness, who will die if he doesn’t have a blood transfusion, but is refusing it on religious grounds. Adam is still legally a minor, but not for long, so the court must decide whether to honor his refusal, or allow the hospital to treat him against his will. Fiona, the judge, decides to visit the boy in the hospital to get a better idea of how well he understands the implications. At that point, the boundaries of the relationship become hopelessly blurred. Fiona comes to a decision on the case, but her involvement with Adam is just beginning.

Both parts of this story — the court case and the unraveling marriage — drew me in and kept me racing through the book to see how it would resolve. It’s a deeply satisfying read on multiple levels: plot, emotion, morality, character.

author photo: Andy Paradise/Rex Features

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