Ian McEwan’s The Children Act

By Phoebe Gipson

First Runner Up, The Connell Guides Essay Prize 2015.

Originally, I had gone to the library in search of a collection of poetry by Anne Sexton, intending (slightly begrudgingly) to take my teacher’s advice and do some further reading around my subjects. It was after a fruitless search in the American poetry section I began to peruse the ‘New Arrivals’; books just released, yet to be checked out by anyone. A familiar name caught my eye, that of Ian McEwan. Having studied On Chesil Beach as part of my coursework last year, I was slightly hesitant, on the lookout for horrifically award sexual encounters or slightly pathetic female protagonists. However, The Children Act centres around a High Court judge, Fiona Maye, renowned for her “fierce intelligence, exactitude and sensitivity”. Just my cup of tea!

This book deals with many modern ‘taboos’: childless women in high powered careers, infidelity and medical ethics to name but a few. I can’t say I enjoyed McEwan’s portrayal of Fiona, clearly an intelligent, independent woman who is plagued by guilt for her childlessness. When will we see a female character who doesn’t believe she’s less of a woman because of her choice not to have children? However, I can see why he made the decision to deal with an issue faced by many working women striving to make a name for themselves in male dominated industries. Her husband, Jack, is presented as a loving but selfish and proud man. At the beginning of the novel he asks Fiona’s permission to sleep with another woman as Fiona is not ‘satisfying him’. I was disappointed to see this become a recurring theme, Fiona becoming On Chesil Beach’s Florence, yet another woman who can’t provide for her husband’s needs.

These qualms aside, the excellence of this book lies in its controversy. McEwan does not impose opinions on his reader but instead lets them make their own judgements. We meet Adam, “a beautiful seventeen-year-old boy” who is refusing medical treatment because of his religious beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. Fiona rules that he must have the treatment to protect him from his religion, stating that although he knows his own mind “his life is more precious than his dignity”. This act causes Adam to question his parent’s faith and his upbringing in a way that many young adults can relate to. The description of him as “beautiful” is interesting because not only does it seem irregular, gender stereotypes tending to label women as beautiful, but it also emphasises his purity and innocence. In a way, it seems almost patronising, as if he is too ‘perfect’ to know his own mind and make rational decisions.

This battle between the secular law courts dealing with cases concerning religion particularly intrigued me. Fiona rules on a case concerning Siamese twins, with either both of them dying or them being separated and only one of them living. The parents do not want to interfere with God’s plans and so are willing for their children to die. Although this is not mentioned in great detail in the novel, the idea that parents (including Adam’s) would be willing to sacrifice their children for their religious beliefs shocked me. It raises the question: does religion do more harm than good? The fervour that the parents in McEwan’s novel hold seems to demonstrate a dangerous level of devotion, yet he does not present them, as many writers would, as misguided or foolish. Adam’s father is shown to be a rational, intelligent man; aware of the suffering his convictions will cause him and his wife. In my opinion, this was a clever decision on McEwan’s part as he does not patronise religion by presenting it as unfounded or irrational, nor does he present a direct conflict between law and religion, allowing the reader to see both points of view.

Now, for why I fell in love with this novel. I have never read a book that encapsulates the complexities of human emotion and relationships as well as McEwan does here. We see professional and personal mistakes, reconciliation, conflict and dilemma, realising that our actions are dictated just as much by our emotionality as by our reason. When Fiona and Adam share a brief kiss, my initial reaction was to recoil in disgust. A 59 year old woman and an 18 year old boy?! Yuck! However, McEwan does not pass judgment on it but allows the reader to understand the feelings that lead it to happen. Adam and Fiona both suffer personal conflict with those closest to them: Adam with his parents and Fiona with her husband. This leads them to become emotionally attached in a way that probably wouldn’t have occurred under any normal circumstances. We see a boy desperate for answers and a woman starved of affection, the kiss is not lustful but powerful. This is, sadly, the last time in the novel that Fiona sees Adam as his leukaemia comes back and (now he is over 18) he legally refuses a blood transfusion and dies. This harrowing ending adds ambiguity to Fiona’s original ruling, forcing Adam to have the blood transfusion. It takes the reader on a cyclical journey, and yet you could never say that the story was pointless.

Another complex relationship that gets explored is that of Fiona and Jack. As I stated briefly earlier Jack has an affair and a few days later comes crawling back, his fling not having lived up to expectation. I found the fairly realistic modern day scenario of a couple staying together out of convenience fascinating. Jack and Fiona do slowly rebuild their relationship but in a very believable, non-clichéd way. It is only right at the end of the novel when all skeletons are aired from the closet and both has had time to come to terms with them that they reconcile. Being a lawyer in family courts, Fiona is surrounded by divorce all day and does consider it briefly for her own marriage but decides against it. Even with the adultery, the Fiona and Jack remain fiercely loyal to each other, just unable to express it, emphasising the importance of communication and honesty.

In the acknowledgements to this novel McEwan thanks “Sir Alan Ward, lately of the Court of Appeal, a judge of great wisdom, with and humanity” who advised him on “various legal technicalities”. By working with a judge McEwan was able to create a realistic and believable world for Fiona to inhabit. He uses the technicality of law to make his judgements logical and also to illustrate that blunders can be made. One character, ‘Justice Sherwood Runcie’ is seen to be “an embarrassment by association” because of a horrific mistake which lead to an innocent mother being sent to prison, yet he has kept his job because of the legal system’s bias. This small detail allows McEwan to make a comment on corruption without being direct or insulting, more in a ‘food-for-thought’ kind of way. I enjoyed these small, easily missed additions because you had to interpret them yourself, you weren’t ‘spoon fed’ the author’s opinions.

Ultimately, this book has had an impact on me because it truly made me question what it means to be rational, as well as allowing me to explore human emotionality in a way I’ve never experienced before. It gave me an opinion, I love the fact that I do not find everything agreeable. The characterisation of Fiona was something that irritated me- showing that I was really becoming passionate about what I was reading, something that I do not find happens often. The legal world was also something that intrigued me, so who knows? Maybe one day you’ll hear of Justice Phoebe Gipson.

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