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by Ian McEwan
Knopf Canada, September 2014
240 pages
$29.95 CAD
ISBN: 0345809629

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The legislation covering the protection of children in Britain is, somewhat oddly, called "The Children Act," and its first section declares: "When a court determines any question with respect to...the upbringing of a child...the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration." Not the parents' wishes nor the state's interests, but the child's welfare is the principal question to be addressed in court. Still, the Act has an slightly ambiguous title, it seems to me, for the children in these cases cannot act but must be acted for and sometimes, from their point of view, against.

Fiona Maye is a High Court judge who presides over just this sort of legal action. She is called upon to render judgement in the kind of case that would make Solomon quail and by all accounts she does so with wit, wisdom, and compassion. To the apparently hopeless mess that the lives she must adjudicate have got into, she hopes to bring a measure of reason. Two cases in particular are before her at the present moment. In one, the arranged marriage of a strictly observant Orthodox Jewish couple has broken down. The wife has qualified as a primary school teacher and has taken steps to educate her two daughters in a more broadly secular way than her religious community and her husband approve of. She hopes they will go on to university, prepare for a career, and be self-sufficient as she was never encouraged to do. For his part, the husband, via his female barrister, maintains that the girls are being deprived of the safety and assurance of a coherent community and a loving family. In essence Fiona is being asked to decide how far a particular form of religious faith, one out of step with prevailing social norms, may be allowed to determine the fate of children.

Her second case is even trickier. A boy lies dying of leukemia in a London hospital. He requires a blood transfusion to repair the damage his chemotherapy treatment has done him. If he does not receive it, he will die unpleasantly and in a matter of days. But he is refusing and so are his parents as all three are ardent Jehovah's Witnesses. Based on an interpretation of several Biblical verses forbidding the faithful to eat bloody meat, they take the view that they will be cut off from salvation if they permit transfusion. They will certainly be cut off from fellowship with the Witnesses. What complicates the problem for Fiona is the age of the young man. He is just weeks shy of the eighteenth birthday that would remove him from the reaches of The Children Act. Fiona decides that she must visit him in hospital to gauge the measure of his comprehension of what he faces.

In the meantime, however, her husband Jack has presented Fiona with a challenge of his own. She must allow him to pursue a passionate affair with a twenty-eight-year-old statistician named Melanie. He loves his wife, he says, but before he dies (he has recently turned sixty), he wants "one big passionate affair....Ecstasy, almost blacking out with the thrill of it. Remember that? I want one last go, even if you don't. Or perhaps you do."

Fiona is having none of it. Nor, for that matter, was this reader. He can forget the whole thing or their marriage is at an end. Fiona suspects, in any event, that Jack is asking for retrospective permission, since the affair is most probably under way already. There is little she can do about it.

Fiona visits the dying boy, Adam Henry, in hospital, though she suspects she may be succumbing to a sentimental whim. There she discovers an utterly charming and talented young man, one given to writing poetry and, absurdly, considering his condition and life expectancy, teaching himself to play the violin. Fiona, herself an accomplished amateur musician, is touched. Here is certainly a life worth saving. How can the sternly literal dictates of a self-appointed prophet interpreting scripture in 1945 be allowed to end such a glowing life as this?

It is hereafter that the novel turns, as happens so often with McEwan, and takes a disappointing and fundamentally unconvincing direction. There is something profoundly wrong with Fiona that her career, her judgements, her wisdom, even her triumphant performance of Mahler at the Christmas concert cannot offset, at least in her author's eyes. She has never had a child. Like the woman in the Roy Lichtenstein picture, she seems to have forgotten to. Has her failure to become a mother, her lingering, unquenchable sadness no professional success can compensate for, mean that she must fail Adam? Evidently.

As he has in other novels, notably SATURDAY, which THE CHILDREN ACT resembles in shortened form, McEwan expresses considerable confidence in the restorative powers of mid- to late-Victorian poetry. This time around it's Yeats's "Down By the Salley Gardens" that provides the bridge between the generations. Nor is Yeats the only Irish presence in this tale. Michael Furey of Joyce's "The Dead" makes a ghostly appearance as well, though one suspects some coercion was required on McEwan's part to get him to show up.

Readers who enjoy legal fiction should be interested in the two cases Fiona deals with here, meticulously detailed as they are. Otherwise, there is an emotional chill about the whole enterprise which left me in the end vaguely dissatisfied.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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