Ian McEwan’s latest short novel (224 pages in a large font), The Children Act (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), is a story about an issue. Based on the UK’s 1989 Children Act, which focuses on the welfare of the child in issues involving children’s rights, the novel is about a judge, Fiona Maye, who handles a complicated case in family court.
A 17-year old boy is dying of leukemia and his parents – and the boy himself – refuse transfusions because of their religious beliefs; they are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they believe that the bible does not allow transfusions. But it’s the welfare of the child that Fiona Maye has to take into account in deciding whether or not to force the hospital to give him the transfusion. She carefully considers his motivations, the desires of his parents, and weighs the consequences before rendering her decision.
At the same time, Fiona is facing her own family problems, as her marriage to Jack, a university professors, faces hurdles. It’s hard to discuss this book without giving away the plot, so I’ll stop there.
Ian McEwan has written a number of short novels like this – you can read it in an evening – with small casts of characters, and emotional plots, starting with Amsterdam, which was about assisted suicide. He doesn’t shy away from tackling big issues, but he doesn’t do so dogmatically. What he does manage to do is present a serious issue and get inside the characters in such a way that the reader is not patronized, but has to weigh the same moral factors as the protagonist.
This book could almost be a play. There are a few scenes, in a small number of locations, centering around three characters: Fiona May, her husband Jack, and the boy, Adam. McEwan’s spare prose paints these characters as real human beings, with their joys and angst, with the gravitas of a judge faced with problems both large and small.
At the end of this poignant novel, I was reminded of James Joyce’s long story story The Dead, from his collection Dubliners. Much happens in that story, but it’s all summed up in the final paragraph, the final sentence. In The Children’s Act, the story ends in a similar way, as Fiona Maye sums up what had happened to her since the beginning of the novel.
This is a moving novel that pulls no punches, yet avoids the melodrama that some authors might have employed. It’s both a good read, and a thought-provoking story, that will linger in your mind for a long time.