Ian McEwan’s is a Masterchef whose key ingredients are all carefully selected. With ‘The Children Act’ it’s as if the author has taken a much longer book and drained it through a sieve. All the wishy-washy, watery stuff has been siphoned off and the resultant literary reduction is smooth and palatable, but also deeply satisfying.
The book’s central character is a female High Court Judge practising in Family law, but the novel opens at a key point in her personal life rather than her professional one. Julia’s husband is contemplating an adulterous liaison with a young statistician and asks Julia to sanction the affair, on the basis that she and Jack no longer have a mutually fulfilling sex life. Julia is side-swiped by the request but clings to the belief that her marriage is worth saving. Whilst she is facing this intense personal challenge, the Judge is also dealing with her usual heavy workload. Divorce cases, access to children, the separation of conjoined twins, Julia has to rule on serious and life-changing cases. When the case of Adam Henry comes before her, there is not much time for a decision to be reached; Adam is opposing life-saving blood transfusions on the grounds that the procedure conflicts with his religious beliefs. At 17, is he mature enough to make the decision to refuse the treatment which will safe his life? That judgement is for Julia to make, and it is literally life or death. She gets to determine.
‘The Children Act’ examines not only the legal aspects of caring for families in society, (there are carefully-researched references to several landmark rulings), but also the immense skill required in the correct application of the law. McEwan explores ethics, religious belief and parental influence; as a reader I began to develop an appreciation of how difficult it must be to negotiate the complexities of the law and apply legal principles soundly. Within the book, because of the emotive nature of Adam’s situation, it is so easy to get side-tracked by moral or medical issues, when what the Judge must be concerned with is the law. The role of music and poetry is also important within the book; these art forms contrast with the formality of the law, providing outlets for self-expression, release and shared experiences.
I read ‘The Children Act‘ pretty much in one sitting; it is an interesting and thought-provoking read which succeeds on both emotional and cerebral levels. I put it down really feeling as if I had learned something. Quite an achievement for 224 pages. I’ve struggled with McEwan’s work in the past, but I am tempted now to re-visit some of his other work. A great read.