Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review: The Children Act

The Children Act The Children Act by Ian McEwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m used to juxtaposing justice with mercy. That’s the conventional formula. In this, utterly skillful novel, McEwan changes the equation slightly so that justice finds itself in competition with love. It’s two of the cardinal virtues weighed against each other through the experiences of the all-too human Fiona Maye, a British family court judge known for her brilliant decisions. She takes as paramount the central claim of the decree referenced in the title – the Children Act – that the welfare of a child should always be paramount in any legal deliberation.

Before the novel begins, Fiona’s life has a kind of perfection to it. She is an acclaimed jurist, and her husband, an energetic classics professor, seems like her ideal match. The two are equally accomplished, and they’ve built a comfortable life together. It turns out it’s too comfortable, though, when her husband announces he intends to have an affair with a younger woman. He seems to be telling her in advance, asking for a kind of permission or shocking her into renewed passion in their marriage. As it is, he tells her, all marriages aspire to condition of siblinghood, and he feels more like a brother to her than a husband.

At the same time as her marriage crumbles, she finds herself with a challenging case: a 17 years and three months old boy has leukemia. He’s from a family of Jehova’s Witnesses, so they refuse medical treatment for him. Once Adam reaches 18, he can make the decision himself, but until then Fiona has to weigh the competing claims. She chooses a kind of powerful justice, one that flies in the face of religious absolutism but that takes faith seriously as a reasonable motive.

What follows is complicated, and I don’t want to risk a [SPOILER] without warning. Fiona, acting as dispassionately as she can under her personal emotional turmoil, inadvertently unleashes the demand for love from the Adam. He sees her as someone who has allowed him to glimpse a wider, more cosmopolitan world, and he wants her to play a kind of mother figure to him. Fiona and her husband have never had children, though – a decision incidental to her commitment to her judicial career – and, in the wake of their break-up and clumsy reunion, she feels her childlessness like never before. In one of the many superb passages of the book, she imagines how the children they might have had would have reacted: they’d have gathered around the kitchen table, trying to talk sense into dad and trying to make mom realize she bore some of the blame. It’s a seemingly effortless sketch, yet it packs the wallop of some entire novels. It’s a cry for the love she gave up in order to serve justice as she has.

As the novel nears its end, Fiona realizes with ever greater clarity that she cannot love without sacrificing something of justice. Whether it means forgiving her husband (and, implicitly, forgoing her righteous sense of betrayal) or being present for Adam and compromising her role as a judge, she simply cannot contain both virtues simultaneously.

You know you’re in capable hands from the moment you read the opening pages. I think I read McEwan’s Atonement 20 or so years ago, around the time it came out, and even though I’ve forgotten the particulars of the book, I found a familiar excellence of skill as soon as I started reading this. McEwan writes with true clarity: a clarity not just of language and character, but of moral terminology as well. You know right away that this is about something, that it isn’t merely a story of interesting characters (though it is that as well).

The final scene here is nothing short of a masterpiece. It carries the same emotional weight (and, I’d insist, speaks indirectly to) the climax of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” I don’t make that comparison lightly: McEwan may not be quite as efficient here as Joyce is there, but the result is that good. Two flawed humans realize how small they are beside the weight of others’ passions, but they realize as well some of their capacity to lighten each other’s burden, to offer love as a salve to the necessary weakness of all of us.

I might have wished for a little more consistency from Adam as a character (there is a little convenience to the way his passions swing back and forth), but it’s hard to imagine any other fault in this one. I knew of McEwan as one of the world’s great living writers before I picked this up. Reputation confirmed.

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