"The Children Act" by Ian McEwan, Doubleday, $25
Ian McEwan has always had a legal mind. "Atonement," the novel he is probably best known for, turned on a false accusation, and the ramifications of an unjust conviction based on a relatively thin amount of evidence. "The Children Act," his new book, centers on the other side of the courtroom: the personal ramifications of a judge deciding a difficult case with conflicting evidence.
The judge is Fiona Maye, on the English High Court, who oversees the Family Division. Judge Maye ("Maye" is a perfect name for a judge) has decided many difficult cases over her long career, including allowing the split of Siamese twins -- thus killing one of them, but saving the other -- and reconciling numerous messy divorces and custodies. Fiona has long been married, but is without children, perhaps because she "belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ.”
Just as her husband of 35 years suggests that she allow him to have an open extramarital affair ("I want everything the same," he says. "No deception."), Fiona gets her latest dilemma: a 17-year-old Jehovah's Witness who needs an emergency blood transfusion to continue successful treatment of his cancer. His parents are devout and, as per doctrine, against the procedure, but the hospital petitions the Family Division to allow it to compel treatment.
Although the workaholic Fiona is a wonderful character -- as is Adam, the boy who needs the transfusion -- it's quickly obvious how she is going to rule. After Fiona's decision, the story's momentum tapers off; at least the intriguing relationship between Fiona and Adam -- at one point the judge decides she must meet Adam to render a decision -- makes any plot destination enjoyable.
By the end of the book, with an outcome she never expected, Fiona is challenged to reconcile the personal and the legal.
McEwan, the author of more than a dozen novels, including a Booker Prize for the brilliantly taut "Amsterdam," lacks overall thematic focus here, despite the novel's short length. Ultimately, it is really about the legal standard under which Fiona must decide: according to the statute for which the book is titled, she must look out for "the best interests of the child."
Whether she makes the right decision for Adam is probably beside the point; for either religion or the secular law, the book nihilistically suggests, perhaps possess shaky foundations: "The blasphemous notion came to her that it didn’t much matter either way whether the boy lived or died… Profound sorrow, bitter regret perhaps, fond memories, then life would plunge on and all three would mean less and less as those who loved him aged and died, until they meant nothing at all."
A novel best suited for lawyers, "The Children Act" captures the difficulty in predicting the future, in seeing what is really in anyone's "best interest" -- especially our own.