The Children Act review – Ian McEwan’s compelling study of rational versus religious belief

A high court judge is the voice of reason in the face of religious short-sightedness in McEwan’s 13th novel

The Children Act, McEwan’s 13th novel, presents us with some of the usual trappings that have come to characterise his recent work: the well-educated and well-off protagonist whose equilibrium is suddenly upset by a powerful external force; and a single moment of apparently innocuous, but ultimately momentous, misunderstanding.

By day 59-year-old Fiona Maye, a high court judge, presides over family division cases; by night she sips Sancerre on the chaise longue in her Gray’s Inn flat, dines with colleagues at Middle Temple, or attends concerts at Kings Place “(Schubert, Scriabin)”. Her 35-year marriage with her academic husband is imploding, but this is background noise; the main event is the emergency case she’s just agreed to take on. A 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness named Adam – an impossibly beautiful, slightly unbelievable, near ethereal presence who writes poetry and plays the violin – is refusing the blood transfusion that could save his life, and Fiona has to decide whether rational or religious thought wins the day.

McEwan’s own atheism rings loud and clear from the very beginning, and from the cases detailed in the first chapter alone it’s obvious that Fiona’s job is to be the voice of reason in the face of religious short-sightedness – a strict Moroccan Muslim father who wants to remove his daughter from the care of her English mother; another, from an Orthodox Jewish community, who wants to limit the education and life experiences his ex-wife wants for their daughters; and a Catholic couple whose faith is compelling them to watch their conjoined twins die, even though the medical establishment advocates the saving of one at the expense of his much weaker brother.

Interestingly, these mini-tales are by far the most compelling elements of the novel. When we’re brought back to Adam and Fiona, it seems less like McEwan’s in charge of the actions and decisions made by his characters and more like he’s observing their every move, recording their interactions with each other and descriptions of their environments with the formal, unemotional tones of an anthropologist. In many ways it’s a parable of the obvious – “It was not her business or mission to save him, but to decide what was reasonable and lawful” – but there’s something about the studied solemnity of McEwan’s tone that held me captivated.

The Children Act is published by Vintage (£7.99). Click here to order it for £5.99


Lucy Scholes

The GuardianTramp

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