There are times during The Children Act when Ian McEwan seemed to be trying to out Ian McEwan himself, such was his commitment to imagining his now familiar to the-point-of-parody urban middle class life. There are a whole heap of McEwanisms in this, his 13th novel. Here he is writing about a Saturday morning in his protagonist Fiona Maye’s house, where the coffee is: “strong, in tall white thin-lipped cups, filtered from high-grade Colombian beans, with warmed, not hot milk” accompanied by “warmed pains aux raisins from Lamb’s Conduit Street”.
It all sounds blissfully lovely and yet we all know high grade coffee beans can’t buy you happiness, especially in an Ian McEwan books where a luxurious lifestyle masks simmering violence, cruelty and malice. But still, an Ian McEwan drinking game would be a dangerous activity; downing a shot of fine Scotch every time the author mentioned warm pastries, marbled kitchen surfaces, Bach, the fine cut of the protagonist’s coat, would render you incapable of reading beyond page 50.
I mock out of love, although perhaps rather more for McEwan’s back catalogue than this novel that feels strangely incomplete and slight – and not just in size. It’s a short, sharp novel written in McEwan’s trademark briskness that teeters on the brink of something great, but never quite reaches the heights of his other novels.
The Children Act takes us back to the McEwan land of Saturday. This time the wildly successful middle class professional who has the sharp edges of their intellect and ambition smoothed by an enjoyment of the arts (especially classical music) and an evening glass of fine wine is High Court judge, Fiona Maye.
Fiona works in the family division, playing the referee between warring parents in custody battles and hospitals desperate to save children with treatment their parents’ religions forbid them to use. Her latest case is a matter of urgency; Adam Henry, a 17 year-old boy – months from his 18th birthday – is suffering with leukaemia and needs a blood transfusion to help save his life. He is – just – too young to make the decision himself and his Jehovah’s Witness parents won’t give their consent to a procedure that is against the religion’s doctrine. Wobbling on the cusp of a decision, Fiona visits Adam to try to fully understand him and his wishes. Overseen by a social worker, their meeting over Adam’s hospital bed, ends with him playing Benjamin Britten’s composition of the Yeats’ poem, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ scratchily on his violin while she sings the mournful lyrics.
Adam is a sad, troubled figure – a bright, intelligent boy with a man’s brain and a child’s enthusiasm that blurs into naivety. Through Fiona’s eyes he is described as beautiful, but I don’t think it’s so much his physical beauty she sees, but his vulnerability, his youth, his future.
Fiona Maye is a likable and compelling character. She’s controlled and impenetrable in many ways, but McEwan allows a warmth to emanate from her that is mostly told through her love of music (classical) and poetry (Yeats). McEwan can conjure characters in few words, and you can almost hear the bristle of Fiona’s natural sheer tights as she walks purposely through Gray’s Inn Square, briefcase in hand.
Bubbling away behind her courtroom dramas, is her own drama. Fiona Maye is – and we’re encouraged to believe this is important in the context of her job – childless and until five minutes before the novel begins in a seemingly happy marriage to Jack. The novel opens with Jack telling her that he wants to have one last fling, his chosen accomplice a 28-year-old statistician with whom he works. His demands are appalling and his behaviour worse, even walking out the door with his suitcase without saying goodbye to his wife. That he comes crawling back is no surprise, although I’d have rather Fiona kneed him in the groin rather than merely offering him her frosty shoulder. But the description of the sad dance the two of them do after his return is typically vivid in that brilliant way McEwan has of writing about the tiny sadnesses that infect our lives.
The legal cases, however, are far more gripping even if McEwan has to frantically shift many plot pawns into position in order to get his checkmate ending. It’s not that the ending feels wrong, but it falls rather flat after a frantic build up that seemed to point to a high-voltage conclusion. Perhaps it’s better this way (see Amsterdam for evidence of McEwan pressing the atomic ending button), but I felt as if I’d barely got to know Fiona and Adam in this slight story that didn’t quite allow either of them to capture my imagination.
by Suzanne Elliott