Book reviews

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act

(The Children Act has many of the delicious ingredients in many other Ian McEwan novels. Smart, complex, ambitious characters; their love lives; and their obsessions. I was reminded of Enduring Love’s strange love triangle; The Kindness of Strangers echoes slightly.)

The Children Act is Ian’s take on marital crisis—stasis?—for the older set.

Fiona has been in a fulfilling marriage since the 1970s. She is a judge specializing in family law. Her husband is a successful academic. It never seemed like quite the right time to have children. She and her husband settled into an ordered, increasingly comfortable life where each pursued their academically-inclined, high-brow passions. They drink moderate amounts of wine, eat fine cheese and grapes and have a fulfilling sex life.

A case Fiona presided over earlier in the year has been haunting her. Conjoined infant boys, Matthew and Mark, shared entirely too much. Matthew’s internal workings were weak, ineffectual, or missing. Brother Mark was doing the work of living for both of them. It was exhausting and Mark’s body was giving out. The decision fell to Fiona: separate the twins, which would certainly kill Matthew but might save Mark, or do nothing and let the brothers wither and die more slowly.

Fiona ruled for a surgical separation. Months later that decision still haunts her. It’s impacting her marriage. She can’t summon desire. She may have lost all desire for sex, but her husband has not. Now he wishes to have an affair.

He states his intentions on the evening of another numbing work day. She can’t even summon the energy to argue with him. Instead she buries her nose in the following day’s caseload.

In the morning, she wakes to find that her husband has left to begin his adulterous life. Fiona calls a locksmith and has the locks changed, but that is her only spiteful action. From there, she slips into a slightly altered state. She starts allowing things to happen she would have guarded against in her former life as a happily married.

That afternoon she journeys to the bedside of Adam Henry. Adam, age seventeen and 3/4s, has leukemia. Radiation therapy was successful, but now his blood count is dangerously low. He needs a transfusion. But Adam is a Jehovah’s Witness. He objects to the transfusion. His faith forbids the acceptance into the body of any blood products. But, being a minor, The State is obliged to protect Adam and may overrule Adam’s wishes.

Fiona is impressed by Adam’s wit, intelligence, and beauty. Despite being near death, Adam is exuberant about life. He reads her his poetry. He pulls out his violin—he has been learning how to play while in hospital. He plays the “Sally Gardens,” then plays it again to Fiona’s tuneful vocals. Although Adam does a good job convincing her he is of sound mind and reached his decision to refuse the transfusion independently of pressure from his parents and religious leaders, she rules in the hospital’s favor and the transfusion proceeds.

Weeks later, Adam begins sending her letters. He is grateful to be alive. He questions his faith. His parents are becoming difficult. He wants Fiona to stay in his life. Could he live with her? Platonically, of course. As a kind of lodger.

In the meanwhile, Fiona’s husband has returned from the wars. It took him less than seventy-two hours to realize his wrongheadedness. Sure, sex is missing from his life, but what he and Fiona have is so much more than that.

Fiona is not ready. She can’t even summon a cleansing, purifying anger.

Adam continues to write.

In autumn, Fiona departs to preside over cases in out of the way places. Adam arrives at the country estate where she is lodged on a dark, rainy evening. He is drenched to the bone. She tries to reason with him; explains that he must stop pursuing her. In a moment of forgetting who she is, her obligations, and the life she has built, she and Adam kiss.

In the weeks and months that follow, Fiona prepares for a Christmas performance with a barrister colleague. She and her husband continue to share living space, though still not a bed. Adam sends letters, and finally a poem, the last line of which has been torn away.

The night of the performance, Fiona and Adam’s paths cross one final time. You will have to read The Children Act to find out how.

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