Book Review: The Children Act – Ian McEwan

It’s incredibly difficult to remain impartial when reading a story involving a conflict between religion and a person’s basic human rights.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d bought The Children Act within the first week of its release (September 2014) and that as soon as I finished with my uni work, I’d be settling down to devour all 213 pages.

As it goes, I didn’t end up waiting much longer after I posted. I managed to read McEwan’s latest novel in the lovely week-long break I had between my English Literature and Science Fiction deadlines. Amazing considering I’d spent the previous weekend slaving over an (awful) essay involving one of his other novels (I’d chosen one of his as an attempt to give me some enthusiasm to actually finish the work.. it worked, sort of).

Still, I settled down after submitting my penultimate assignment and immersed myself in the world of the protagonist, Fiona Maye. Fiona is a successful, well respected High Court Judge residing in the family courts, ruling over parents fighting over their children, for more money, access, or simply to save face following a messy divorce.

One evening she receives a call informing her of an imminent case involving a 17-year-old boy who is refusing a (life-saving) blood transfusion on religious grounds. From there Fiona must work her way through the notoriously grey areas in the law, specifically the Children Act and the way religious beliefs can affect moral issues. On top of that, Jack, her husband of thirty years, expresses his desire to have an affair with a younger colleague of his, forcing Fiona to make a decision to either pay more attention to their relationship or simply call time on what Jack claims has become a physically loveless marriage.

Before I go any further, I should probably explain a little more of the law that acts as a foundation for the whole storyline. In the preface to the novel, McEwan quotes a few sentences from the act itself to outline the purpose of the act clearly;

‘When a court determines any question with respect to… the upbringing of a child… the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration’

Section I(a), the Children Act (1989).

The act seems entirely clear and logical, however, what happens when said ‘child’ is months away from becoming an adult?

Adam Henry, the boy in question, is dangerously ill with leukaemia however his life could be saved if he accepted a blood transfusion, a procedure that has proved successful for many patients before him. Unfortunately, the procedure conflicts with the Henry family’s religious beliefs. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, they believe that the Bible prohibits ingesting blood, and that Christians should refuse blood transfusions or indeed donate blood themselves, regardless of the consequences.

As a result of this, the hospital are forced to apply to the court to overrule what is legally viewed as the parents’ decision (though it could be argued that this decision is respected and upheld more on the father’s side, rather than that of the mother), to refuse the transfusion that would ultimately save Adam’s life.

I say ‘what is legally viewed as the parents’ decision’, because McEwan uses Adam’s age to highlight the grey area within this particular law. At 17, Adam is technically viewed as a child, however as he is 3 months away from legally becoming an adult, it is incredibly difficult to simply disregard taking his wishes into consideration. Fiona realises this and takes time to visit Adam, which proves to be a powerful scene for both character and reader.

As I said at the beginning of the post, it’s difficult to remain impartial when it comes to addressing moral issues. For me, and I suspect for a lot of other people, the decision is essentially a no-brainer. The scene between Fiona and Adam is not only vital for the development of the plot, but also I think, highlights some of the issues surrounding the influence of cult-like religious groups in modern life.

It’s probably pretty well known among McEwan’s readers that he is an atheist, indeed, it’s a fact that countless reviewers have drawn attention to when discussing this novel. I think it was the Guardian that wrote his own beliefs quite clearly colour the novel and its characters, and honestly, I’m inclined to agree with them.

This isn’t the first time religion has been addressed in McEwan’s novels. Enduring Love famously features the psychologically unstable, devoted Christian Jed Parry who I personally found pitiful (due to his delusional love for Joe) and infuriating (for the same reason). His devotion to God and Christianity is unwavering, to the point where he seems unable to fully function without his beliefs. I should mention though, that Enduring Love’s narrator Joe is a science writer, which probably slightly colours the interpretation of Jed even further, though it’s fair to say that I found it equally difficult to fully understand or sympathise with the Henry family of The Children Act.

Before the reader meets Adam, we are introduced to his parents or perhaps more specifically, his father (his mother has very little say throughout the novel) who’s time answering questions in court is (for me) incredible and very telling. McEwan reveals the Henry family’s back-story before Mr Henry has a chance to speak. He describes how the family were facing a lot of troubles, unemployed, alcoholics with a young baby and the threat of homelessness, they were visited by two young Americans hoping to help people ‘live in truth’ and sure enough, they gradually accepted the idea. From that point their problems began to be resolved and the family unit became stronger than ever and the Henry family’s devotion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses became similarly unwavering.

It’s the devotion that makes Mr Henry’s time in the docks so incredible to me. McEwan writes his character as though he’s simply a robot, paraphrasing the Bible as though it’s fact. Though I suppose for Mr Henry, it would be. What I found amazing, reading this particular section of the book (early on in the second chapter) was the way the family reacted to Adam’s illness. While one family would be filled with concern and desperation to make their loved one better, the Henry family view it as an ‘ultimate test of faith’, forcing them to focus more on their belief that prayer and their faith in God’s will would suffice over the situations outcome.
For me, this scene in particular links quite clearly back to McEwan’s separation from the enveloping power of religion. I think the stereotype of a deeply religious individual, we tend to immediately think of ‘bible-bashers’ or something to that effect; to a certain extent (as I mentioned before) Mr Henry tends to answer by paraphrasing passages from Watch Tower Society literature,  which tends to adhere to the stereotype and is slightly frustrating, however, McEwan is careful to remind readers that no matter how devoted someone might be, human nature and human emotion will always win out.

A similar thing occurs when Fiona finally meets Adam, though I think Adam’s honesty also reveals far more than devotion to the faith. What quickly becomes apparent in the scene is that Adam is rather different from his father. Though he has been raised following the same teachings, Adam shows his independent streak in simple acts that really speak out to Fiona. He writes poetry and plays the violin, pastimes Mr Henry considers not ‘particularly relevant to his life’, yet he continues to pursue them in spite of this. This slightly contradictory action is teamed with his ability to express his opinion in a sermon-like fashion, reflecting Adam’s life spent ‘living in truth’.

What is more surprising is what Fiona draws the readers attention to during her visit. Almost immediately she describes Adam as being an ‘intellectually precious young fellow […] bored, under stimulated, and that by threatening his own life he had set in motion a fascinating drama in which he starred in every scene, and which had brought to his bedside a parade of important and importuning adults’. McEwan reminds his readers that Adam is a teenager, behaving like any teenager would by acting in a way that demands attention. This for me is what is most infuriating about his character, in my opinion Adam comes across as arrogant, cocky and manipulative, yet other characters remain totally oblivious.

On the flip side, it’s also quite sad that Adam seems eager to become a martyr, on the (implied) basis that it would strengthen his family’s place in the church (by church elders and Adam’s parents), as the consequences of accepting the transfusion would result in being shunned by the whole church. Yet at the same time by threatening his wellbeing he allows for the attention to turn onto himself, after putting religion first his whole life. The conflict between the natural desire to live (hinted at in Adam’s ‘rebellious’ streak) and the lessons taught to him from a life absorbing religious doctrine must be immense… but I still think him a bit of a shit.

Moving away from the main plot-line, readers are occasionally reminded of the secondary story, Fiona’s love life. Much like Adam’s character, this little offshoot is equally frustrating in that McEwan never really bothers with it. Sure you get the odd flashback to university, or checking her phone for texts, or even contemplating communicating to him, but nothing ever really happens. Of course, her lack of drive foregrounds Jack’s argument about her lack of enthusiasm towards the marriage, however we’re given so little information in terms of the dynamics within the marriage, it’s difficult to tell whether Fiona is the one with the problem or if Jack is simply a selfish idiot. Unfortunately one can’t help feeling like McEwan maybe lost interest or simply just forgot he’d written it in there, I doubt it, but it’s possible…

The ending seemed similarly rushed in my opinion. Without ruining the ending for you, I’ll simply say that there seems to be a distinct difference to Fiona’s reaction to Adam at the hospital, and the reaction to him at the end of the novel. She seemed particularly struck by Adam’s character (which baffles me entirely) in the beginning, however in the last chapter or so she seems cold and callous which I suppose is emphasized by the nature of the ending.
I don’t want to say anymore in case of ruining it all together..

In all I’m still happy I got to read McEwan’s latest, and I’ll probably end up seeing the film that will probably come out within the next few years. While I would argue it’s not the best novel he’s ever written, I still think it worth a read.

So are you a McEwan fan? Have you read this novel already, if so, what are your thoughts?
Comment below and let me know!

Till next time,
love, Leigh


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