THE Gothic-macabre shock of Ian McEwan’s earliest fiction seems a long time ago now.
The Children Act
Jonathan Cape, £16.99
After winning the 1998 Man Booker with Amsterdam, a witty but scarcely ground-breaking satire on journalism, he followed it with Atonement, which, though implausible in particulars, launched him into the pantheon of modern English letters. With Saturday, its successor, he consolidated his place in the establishment.
His admirers have grown older with him. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the ageing process is central to his latest novel, The Children Act, a title typically clever, unpretentious, and in its treatment of how our acts, and the acts of the law by which we are bound, form a vital bond – it creates a compact and resonant world, plus a central character as complex as any McEwan has conjured up.
Fiona Maye, 59 years old, is a High Court judge. Her husband Jack, an academic, has crested 60, but lately the fire has left their marriage. Washed-up, in silence, late at night, Fiona, reclining on a chaise longue, surveys their apartment object by object; and like a movie director busy in the editing suite, McEwan tracks her gaze: the Renoir lithograph bought 30 years ago, “probably a fake”, a blue vase, a Bokhara rug, a baby grand arrayed with silver-framed family photographs “on its deep black shine” signalling clearly a deeper reflection.
For we see Fiona taking stock, wishing “all this stuff at the bottom of the sea”. The “stuff” is evidence of – and witness to – time’s passing, years of childlessness spent pursuing career successes. Now Jack has announced that he is intent upon having a fling: “Fiona… I love you, but before I drop dead I want one big passionate affair.”
“It’ll be the end for us,” she tells him. “Simple as that.”
In the tales of McEwan, (from the outset of his career a natural storyteller, the best of his generation), nothing remotely psychological, emotional or moral, is ever simple, or simplistic. Jack’s schoolboy foolishness – he wants to hold on to the marriage while having his fun – is the narrative trigger, not its substance. Both he and Fiona, broaching old age, are reaching inward, assessing what purpose their lives have expressed, reaching outward too in Jack’s final throw for belated meaning.
Underpinning this are the questions: what is love? What is the meaning of commitment – to another human being, to a belief (religious or secular), to a vocation? Fiona presides on the bench of the family court, bringing law to bear on delicate matters of custody, loyalty, fairness, (un)common sense, even life and death. Her judgments are nuanced, expressed compassionately, with scruple.
But McEwan, having hoisted the issue of the marriage, the husband’s frustrations and intentions, then relegates Jack – and with him the burning central issue of the most important judgement Fiona must make, (to end their relationship or to concede) – and devotes the substance of the rest of the novel instead to her several cases in the High Court. From first page to last, she’s in every scene.
Which is both the narrative’s strength and weakness. The fragile marriage is viewed intermittently – and thereafter by and large from Fiona’s standpoint – never in empathetic complexity. This contrasts with Fiona’s hearing of her cases. In dealing with these, McEwan is at his analytical best: in two of the cases he pitches Fiona into a maelstrom of competing moral arguments where the nub of the human dilemma rests on extreme religious adherence and its effect on the wellbeing of a child.
The central drama therefore shifts to Adam Henry, several months short of his 18th birthday. He is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion. His parents, in accordance with their Jehovah’s Witness faith, believe that “mixing your blood with the blood of another human being is pollution… a rejection of the Creator’s wonderful gift.” Death is preferred. But does Adam grasp how complex his situation may be? Fiona visits him in hospital.
The bedside scene triggers almost all that follows, not least her latent sense of motherliness, and with it the incalculable weight of an elective childless marriage. The powerful emotions thus evoked are nicely countered by McEwan’s stylish, hushed prose, as though he were dipping quill into ink beneath a forbidding librarian’s gaze.
Both the fate of the boy and that of the marriage must not be divulged – for this is a story after all, not a moral treatise. The centrality of Fiona in its unfolding provides the novel with strength of unity, but it sacrifices suspense. Whilst the story engages, it doesn’t quite grip. A final passage describing a music recital in which Fiona stars, contains several stretches of McEwan’s most ardent and best forgotten prose. It’s a juddering end to what is a largely consummate act.