Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

Staff Review by Chris Saliba 

Ian McEwan’s new novel is a gripping story that tackles many morally complex questions about life, death and professional ethics.

Ian McEwan always manages to mix psychological insight with taut sentences to create novels that are both literary and entertaining. His works grab you from the start and keep you in a state of exquisite suspense, turning page after page. He’s a storyteller par excellence. The Children Act, his latest novel, is no exception to this rule.

Fiona Maye is a High Court judge who presides over cases in the family court. She’s smart, successful and highly respected. However, her personal life is unravelling. Her husband of thirty-five years, Jack, announces he wants to have an affair with another woman. Married life for him has turned into a dull routine and he wants to experience a grand passion. Fiona is plunged into emotional turmoil.

To try and keep sane she throws herself into her work. She is called to preside over a morally complex case: a boy only three months away from turning eighteen has refused a blood transfusion on religious grounds. Adam Henry has been raised a Jehovah’s Witness by his two loving parents, and it is clearly their overpowering influence that has led him to this decision. Fiona has been called on by the hospital to make a decision on whether they should intervene. To help get a clearer picture of what is at stake, Fiona visits Adam at his hospital bedside. She finds a sensitive boy who writes poetry and is learning to play the violin. Soon she finds herself being drawn into an emotional relationship with the boy that threatens to undo her professional career.

I couldn’t put this short novel down. McEwan draws a marvelously realistic portrait of a High Court judge, her day to day professional life and the high stakes decisions she has to make. This is contrasted against Fiona’s rather meagre personal life, her humdrum apartment and microwave meals bought from convenience stores. The real pleasures of her life are simple things, like taking moody walks and indulging in her passion for music.

The novel examines a set of interlocking moral quandaries, balancing the personal with the professional. Fiona Maye is in a personally vulnerable condition when she is asked to make the life and death decision of whether Adam Henry should take a blood transfusion. McEwan expertly draws every nuance of her deteriorating inner life, her desire for personal happiness and the demands of her professional life. Through Fiona’s eyes we see how decision making at the highest levels often comes precariously close to being subsumed by human frailty and personal need. Fiona nears the precipice of professional ruin, but manages to pull back.

An utterly compelling new work from a master novelist.

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan. Published by Jonathan Cape & Bodley Head. ISBN: 9780224101998  RRP: $29.99

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