Ian McEwan’s ‘The Children Act’

A new Ian McEwan novel is a true event for me. I don’t care about its subject, and I don’t care about the length (which is saying something), so I don’t even read the flyleaf copy: I will read anything he writes. I look forward to his “Collected Grocery and To Do Lists, 1970-84” coming out in 2017.

childrenSo, of course, I was excited to see stacks and stacks of “The Children Act” during a recent visit to Costco. I knew he had a book coming out, and had read the subject was to be about conjoined twins (it’s not). That piqued my interest. Had I not given up buying books until I pare down the boxes and boxes and boxes I have at home, I’d have slipped it the cart alongside the coffee, Craisins and toilet paper (what would McEwan — or perhaps my doctor — make of THAT list?). Instead, as soon as I got home I put it on hold at the library. Because Kate likes him, too, and because I’m such a thoughtful husband, I also put a hold on the book on CD.

They came at about the same time, but I was in the throes of finishing a novel that was kind of pissing me off because it had taken so long to read, that I put put them aside. Kate was in the middle of something on CD, so I started it in my car on the way to work. I couldn’t stop thinking about it so I read it when I got home, listened to it more in the car and finished it the next night, book in hand. In the end, while parts of it seemed inexplicable, other parts were so compelling and moving that I’m dying for Kate to finish it so we can talk about it.

Fiona Maye is a family court judge and highly respected, too. But her slow climb to the top and the cases that come before her often show humanity at is ugliest and most petty. She wonders at the divorcing couples battling over their children and how they changed from the hopeful young lovers creating new life to two people who need a judge to tell them what to do. She is a childless woman who must act as mother to children and their parents alike. It’s a tough line she walks, but she’s making it work.

Or so Fiona thought. As the novel opens, her husband tells her he’s unhappy with the state of their marriage so he will be having an affair. He loves her, he says, but he wants one last all-consuming passion and believes he has found it. He doesn’t want a divorce or to move out; he simply wants her permission, but adds that he will have the affair with or without her OK. (This reminds me a bit of McEwan’s “On Chesil Beach” where a sexually dysfunctional woman tells her new husband she loves him, but she won’t have sex with him and offers to let him find recreation elsewhere. Oops, I should have said SPOILER ALERT!)

On the heels of her literate and elegant decision in the case of conjoined twins, Fiona is assigned another, equally compelling and no-win case. Adam Hardy, three-months shy of his 18th birthday, and his parents are refusing treatment for leukemia because the blood transfusion he needs would violate their deeply held Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. Without the transfusion, he will surely die. With it, he almost certainly will live.

As part of her decision-making, Fiona visits Adam in the hospital. They chat, he plays violin for her and she sings with his accompaniment. He reads her his poetry. She makes up her mind. What happens after that is compelling and moving, though not at all surprising.

What McEwan does so well is build mood. Even when his characters act in explicable ways, readers feel compelled to go on, because there is a palpable build. What McEwan reveals and when he does it is what makes him such a joy to read. His exploration of faith is also thought-provoking. Some critics have said McEwan comes down firmly on the secular side. I don’t really believe that. I think he leaves room for both sides.

If this is your first foray into McEwan, you may be left wondering what all the fuss is about. But imagine the story in the hands of a lesser writer and when you find yourself thinking about the characters long after you’ve closed the book, you’ll see why McEwan has the following he does.

RON’S BONUS: Because music plays such an important role in the book — Fiona is a talented amateur pianist and the novel builds to a mini recital at a soiree for the legal community — I’ve included links to the songs Ian so purposefully chooses. “Down By the Salley Gardens,” a setting of a Yeats poem by Benjamin Britten. I looked for a male singer, but this was too beautiful to not share. Here, too are Hector Berloiz’s “Les Nuits d’ete” (I believe in the book McEwan refers to the first song of this cycle) and Gustav Mahler’s “I am Lost to the World,” part of his Ruckert-Lieder and performed heartbreakingly by Jessye Norman.

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