The Children Act, Ian McEwan, Nan A Talese, 2014, 240 pp
I liked this novel more than I expected to. It is about family, marriage, children, religion and the law. The title refers to a bit of English law: "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."
This piece of legislation from 1989 is a giant step towards civilization from the climate of British legal views on children in the days when Charles Dickens grew up. I kept finding myself thinking of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield as I read.
But the child in question here is only months away from turning 18. Because he was raised and protected from the world by devout Jehovah's Witnesses, he has a childlike view of life and the world. He is dying of a disease (was it leukemia? I don't recall) and could possibly be saved by a blood transfusion but his parents will not allow it as that would violate their religious beliefs.
Fiona Maye, a middle aged, childless High Court judge in family court holds the power to decide what has become a legal battle between the parents and the hospital where the boy lies dying. Concurrent with the progression of the case is a horrific problem in Fiona's marriage.
In almost perfect prose with impeccable timing, the drama plays out. Each character is poised on some brink where passions and disappointments in life meet the person's capacity for making good and sensible judgements. Or you could call it an inner battle of maturity meets childishness.
Of course, no one really ever wins in such battles. Life is not that simple and is in fact messy. Turning 18 or even 60 is no guarantee of maturity. McEwan keeps the reader captive on these brinks he created which makes for an incredibly good read. He does not judge, even while every character makes judgements and thus we see ourselves and others with increased empathy.
I read this for one of my reading groups and we had one of our best discussions ever.
(The Children Act is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)