Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

TheChildrenActA sexagenarian family judge finds herself trying to maintain a jurisdictional logic in her personal life. Her marriage is in shambles as the husband seeks pleasures outside the confines of the marriage, having exhausted all recourse for it inside it. The judge, who takes pride in her work and her accomplishments, and whose judgements tear through the family boundaries, is fearful of coming to a decision in her own life. Until an external stimuli pushes her to, and eventually saves her marriage. Bringing “reasonableness to a hopeless situation” as Judge Maye describes her work, makes for a number of thorny cases, mostly involving religious family (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics etc). And it falls upon the judge to choose between religion and the state. A tough position to be in. And one that the lady exhibits with elan.

We hate changes, and yet we love change. The temporariness of change is inviting. Fiona (the judge) finds herself confused when her prodigal husband does return eventually after a brief elopement away from home. The abruptness of his departure had unsettled her, but overtime she had felt an invisible feeling of satisfaction – invisible to her even. The husband’s predicament is likewise abhorrent, at least is made out to be. But Fiona seems to understand it somewhere. Perhaps the objectivity of a judge comes in.

The novel takes its name from an actual act called ‘The Children Act’ drafted in 1989 debating the “welfare” of a child and how, in cases involving the upbringing of a child, the court should decide based on the welfare of the child and not necessarily the fundamental right bestowed on citizens. At its core, the novel is polemical in the sense that it tries to take on issues such as welfare and freedom, religion and the state, marriage and choice, and change and translates it into a succinct albeit ordinary story.

The external stimuli that brings the two harried souls together is Adam Henry, the Jehovah Witness child with Leukemia who is refusing to undergo a blood transfusion because his religion prohibits it. The episode’s function is to bring out the opportunistic nature of man’s beliefs and the foolhardiness that such vehement beliefs bestow on men against all prevailing logic. Adam’s parent’s steadfast refusal to see their child cured is contrasted with the intense relief they exhibit when their petition is rejected and the treatment runs it course. Effectively, baring it in front of the child’s eyes the hypocrisy of possessing such beliefs.Tumbling out of one, the child desperately tries to cling on to another – the ruminating bonding he feels with the judge who saved his life. Again, while ridiculing faith itself, the author maneuvers to depict what an absence of one can do to man. When rebuffed by Fiona, Adam recursively takes his life by refusing the treatment again, the circle is complete.

A tightly-knit story which seems deviously preoccupied with an overriding concern. Some stories do that, the bigger picture overwhelms the smaller one and yet, from a distance one would be hard pressed to draw a coherent whole. I for one would have loved a more drawn out character in Adam or in Fiona.

By Ian McEwan
221 pp. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. $25



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