Friday, September 12, 2014

Review of The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act by Ian McEwan
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
Publication Date: September 9, 2014
Length: 240 pages
Source: My own copy

Ian McEwan’s thirteenth novel, The Children Act, highlights issues of faith, fidelity, and responsibility . . . the responsibility of the state for society’s children, and the responsibility of humans for one another. It’s a thought-provoking and intelligent book, elegantly structured and crisply written.

The Story: Fiona Maye is an English judge known for her wise, measured, and carefully crafted decisions. She presides over a Family Court, deciding the fate of families and children every day; among her recent cases was a high-profile and emotionally-wrenching battle over the fate of conjoined twins.

As the novel begins, Fiona’s husband of 35 years tells her he wants to have an affair with a much younger woman, and hopes for her approval. He explains, “I need it. I’m fifty-nine. This is my last shot. I’ve yet to hear evidence of afterlife.” As Fiona reacts with shock and anger, she is called to court to hear the case of a seventeen-year-old boy, Adam, with leukemia. Without a blood transfusion, Adam will likely die. But Adam and his parents oppose the treatment on the grounds of their religion; they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. McEwan follows Fiona’s thoughts as she resolves the complex case and deals with the fall-out of this unexpected crisis in her own domestic situation.

My Thoughts: McEwan skillfully presents the complex legal and moral issues of the Jehovah’s Witness case. Fiona’s actions are guided by the 1989 Children Act, which made a child’s welfare the top priority of British courts; but what if the best interests of a child aren’t always clear? Someone, of course, must sit in judgment, must ultimately DECIDE.

Far more interesting to me than the legal issues of this particular case are the insights McEwan provides into human emotions and decision-making. McEwan’s novels (at least, those I’ve read so far) often seem to hinge on a single, decisive moment, when his main character makes a fateful decision to do something, or NOT to do something . . . and of course, there are consequences to that decision. In The Children Act, this works brilliantly, and the results are provocative.

McEwan’s prose is sharp and clear, and the novel is tightly focused and expertly constructed. McEwan caused a bit of a stir recently when he commented that “very few really long novels earn their length.” After slogging through a few meandering novels recently that could have been cut by at least 100-200 pages (and I confess I’m getting tired of how often I point this out in reviews!), I can well understand his point. Certainly, McEwan demonstrates with the The Children Act that a well-written short novel can still be nuanced, layered, and full of great meaning.

I haven’t read McEwan in quite some time; in fact, I was rather surprised to realize that the only McEwan novel I’d previously read is Atonement. Given that I loved Atonement, I’m not sure how to explain that oversight. In any case, this sharp and intelligent book had me hungering for more McEwan, so I quickly downloaded and inhaled another of his novels, On Chesil Beach. Review to come on that one soon.

Bottom line, I thought The Children Act was excellent, and I do recommend it to those who read literary or contemporary fiction.

Finally, true Book Goofs will enjoy the homage to James Joyce's short story "The Dead." Thanks Ian McEwan, for that literary nerdgasm!


  1. I read this in the middle of several really long books, too, and even though I tend to love chunksters I really appreciated how well this was done in such a small space. I thought McEwan did a great job making law the center of the book without it feeling too technical and, like you said, that shift is always so good.

    1. This was really a good one . . . . I'm feeling so appreciative of McEwan at the moment. Down girl, down.

  2. The only McEwan novel I've read so far is Atonement and I am eager to read some more. Maybe I should pick this one up next!

    1. Yes, it really is good! Or try On Chesil Beach. Possibly I am really just amazed by how tightly focused McEwan's novels are . . . really appreciate that, after a few overly long and meandering novels. :)

  3. Great review. The Children Act has been moved near the top of my TBR list.