Ian McEwan gets it. He understands the complicated nature of the human heart, the means by which we process love, loss, faith, loss of faith, life and death. His later novels are especially interested in human nature, not as an abstract concept, but as a reality. A solid, concrete, beating heart. And it’s to this material that he again returns with The Children Act.
The novel’s title is a pun of sorts, deriving both from The Children Act of 1989, and a short, declarative sentence. Fiona Maye is a judge in a family court. Her husband has asked her for one last fling, since she has turned away from him sexually. In her refusal, she finds her domestic life falling apart as she must make proclamations on the domestic spaces of others. It is in her court that she encounters a case upon which the novel turns: 17-year-old Adam Henry, a member of the Jehovah’s Witness, suffers from leukemia and must receive a blood transfusion in order for his treatment to work. He and his parents refuse the transfusion, but the hospital appeals to the court. The decision is Fiona’s. Does she honor the faith of a young adult? Or does she cite the law and his youth and inexperience to go against his wishes? The decision will come to haunt her.
There are echoes of other McEwan novels in the story of Fiona and Adam (two that come to mind most notably are Enduring Love and The Child in Time, which comprises a major part of my third chapter), but it’s the way he discusses faith and unbelief that still has me thinking. McEwan is neither dismissive nor accepting, but in his steadfast neutrality, the reader can examine his or her beliefs and ponder. And wonder.
As a person of faith, I felt challenged by this novel. In a good way. McEwan is an atheist, but he’s a steadfast believer in the beauty of the human experience, and it’s the multi-faceted glimpse at humanity that draws me into his novels again and again and again.
The ending is gorgeous and melancholy at once. I ended the novel with tears in my eyes, and there are tears welling up as I write this review. I do believe I will be haunted by this book in a way that McEwan has never haunted me before.