‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan tells the story of Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in the Family Division who presides over cases involving the welfare of children. One particular case involves Adam Henry, a seventeen year old Jehovah’s Witness whose devoutly religious parents reject a lifesaving blood transfusion to treat his leukaemia. Meanwhile, Fiona is also facing a crisis in her personal life as her husband, Jack, announces that he is leaving her for another woman.
Like many of his other novels which have dealt with topics ranging from the intricacies of neuroscience (‘Saturday’) to de Clerembault’s syndrome (‘Enduring Love’) to climate change (‘Solar’), McEwan has meticulously researched the inner workings of the family courts. The story draws on details of real cases and the title refers to the 1989 Children Act which demands that Fiona’s ruling must be based on the interests of the child’s welfare. As a result, ‘The Children Act’ raises a whole host of thought-provoking medical, ethical and legal questions about the place of religion in the law and rulings which affect those so close to adulthood.
Fiona visits Adam in hospital in order to understand both his and his parents’ reasons for refusing the blood transfusion just three months away from his eighteenth birthday. Interestingly, Fiona’s final decision on the case doesn’t constitute the climax of the novel and McEwan blends the two dilemmas in Fiona’s life well. Although McEwan’s own views on the debate are perfectly clear, the characters are nuanced and, most importantly, the topic is dealt with sensitively and doesn’t get bogged down in too much detail thanks to the conciseness of his writing.
Apart from the ending, I don’t think ‘The Children Act’ was quite as powerful as much of his other work – ‘Enduring Love’, ‘Atonement’ and ‘At Chesil Beach’ all spring to mind here – but it is very much a typical McEwan novella: clinical, controversial and compelling.