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Ian McEwan: The Children Act

Ian McEwan delves into the murky issue of the rights of religious parents to control their children who live in a society where the majority of people do not support or even agree with the religion’s rules. Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in the family division. At the beginning of the book she is dealing with two such cases. The first, which she has already decided and is now writing up the judgement, concerns a Haredi Jewish family. The Haredi Jews are strictly orthodox. The husband is expected to spend as much time as possible studying the Torah, while the wife must devote her time to raising her family and is also expected to produce a large family. The wife is not allowed to work while the family must keep away from temptations such as TV and the Internet. Children must go to same sex schools and not mix with families exposed to forbidden temptations. One couple – the Bernsteins – were planning on getting divorced. She had only been able to have two children but had now drifted away from her husband. She had a job and, as their two daughters were living with her, wanted to send them to a non-religious mixed school. Her husband was vehemently opposed to this. The case had come up before Fiona Maye and she had to decide whether the husband’s religious rights or the mother’s and daughters’ rights prevailed.

At the start of the book, a second case had just been brought to her. A young man, not yet eighteen and therefore still a legal minor, had leukaemia. The doctors insisted that, unless he had a blood transfusion, he would die and the death would not be pleasant. However, he and his family were Jehovah’s Witnesses and the religion forbade all blood transfusions. Both the boy and his parents are adamant that he should not have a transfusion and that his fate is in God’s hands. Fiona Maye has to decide whether he should have a blood transfusion against his will and that of his parents.

However, apart from her judicial problems, Fiona has another problem. At the beginning of the novel, while she is writing up her judgement, her sixty-year old husband of thirty-five years informs her that he is about to have an affair with a twenty-nine year old woman. He feels that their relationship has evolved into more of a brother-sister relationship rather than that of married couple. They have had not had sex for over seven weeks. He feels that Melanie, the twenty-nine year old, is his last chance for passion and he plans to take it. He is informing Fiona out of courtesy. He does not wish for a divorce as he still loves Fiona but, whatever she says or decides, he will have the affair. And off he goes.

Much of the book is about the leukaemia case, how Fiona handles it and the fall-out from her judicial decision. Interesting though it is, much of it hangs on fairly arcane legal decisions. It is, after all. a legal decision, not a moral one, that she is making. McEwan does show, with the fall-out, that it is not always possible to make a legal decision entirely in a moral vacuum; in other words, a judge (is he saying particularly a woman judge? It does seem so) cannot divorce herself from the moral aspect of her decision. To be fair to McEwan, he does refer to another lawyer, a man, who has another case (albeit very different and not concerned with religious matters) where the male lawyer, in this case, defence counsel, is very much concerned with the moral aspect of the judge’s decision. On this latter case, however, you have to wonder whether the lawyer, a man about the same age as Fiona, has never had to face this before in his career.

One of the issues with a well-known writer is, how do we judge him? Do we judge him solely on this book, entirely on its own merits. or do we judge him on how this book fits in his career? In other words, is this merely a good book, a bad book, or something in-between or should we consider whether it is a good McEwan book, a bad McEwan book or something in-between? Having my cake and eating it, I would say that it is not a bad book at all, readable, interesting with a good story. On the other hand, it is somewhat different from his other books and, as I have mentioned, very much depends on fairly abstruse legal judgements, which I found interesting but others may not. In short, it is not a good McEwan book. Given that the few books preivious to this were not of high quality, in my opinion, this is an improvement. However, it did not make even the Man Booker 2014 longlist so others were clearly less than impressed with it. McEwan does make moral judgements – on the rights of parents with strong feelings versus the rights of their minor children to wait till they are adults to make the religious decisions themselves, on marital relations and the difficulties of divorcing personal feelings from professional actions. All of this is interesting. However, I have to say that if this book had not been written by McEwan, I doubt whether I would have read it.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Jonathan Cape