Fiona Maye is a leading High Court judge, presiding over cases in the family court. She is renowned for her fierce intelligence, exactitude and sensitivity. But her professional success belies private sorrow and domestic strife. There is the lingering regret of her childlessness, and now, her marriage of thirty years is in crisis.
At the same time, she is called on to try an urgent case: for religious reasons, a beautiful seventeen-year-old boy, Adam, is refusing the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents share his wishes. Time is running out. Should the secular court overrule sincerely held faith? In the course of reaching a decision Fiona visits Adam in hospital – an encounter which stirs long-buried feelings in her and powerful new emotions in the boy. Her judgment has momentous consequences for them both.
Whilst I know Ian McEwan isn’t everyone cup of tea, I have to say he is mine. I haven’t read as many of his novels as I would have liked but I’ve enjoyed each one and always found them to be not what I expected when I started reading. The same is the case with The Children’s Act, which left me feeling bereft when I was done because I hadn’t realised how connected to Fiona and Adam I had become and how much I had bought into their stories and lives.
On the surface, Fiona is not that likeable. She is completely focused on her career, to the detriment of her marriage and her life. She isn’t unhappy but she is living in a bubble that no one can seem to burst. Part of her knows this but she doesn’t seem willing or able to make a change till her husband forces one on her, and into making decisions she might not normally have made…which in turn leads her to becoming more involved with Adam, a teenager at the centre of a potentially controversial case.
You can see the dominos falling and the tragedy unfolding yet no one seems able to step far enough outside themselves to stop it – and it is this that meant I ended up having a lot of sympathy for Fiona. Because the dominos were falling long before her husband drops his bombshell; they started when she put her job before becoming a mother – something she has come to regret and is underlying in all her behaviours. McEwan introduces the theme subtly and weaves it through Fiona’s story really well – never beating you over the head with it.
Adam has his own regrets, even though he is young. He has been sheltered and protected by his parents and his church and Fiona’s entry into his life opens his eyes to the wider world, but one he’s not prepared for. He looks for answers in her that he no longer finds in his God – answers it seems impossible she will be able to provide, no matter how much she might want to. They are both so lost and I felt for them because of this.
That McEwan can do this, completely draw me in, when I didn’t know if I liked the characters is a testament to his writing, which I always find seems simple on the surface but somehow leaves me feeling quite exhausted by the end, realising I have been putting all my energies into reading. He manages to create completely believable worlds (at least for me) and put me in the middle of them – which is why I should read more of his books and means that I loved this one. Highly recommended.