Heaving my reading destiny into The Millions Most Anticipated Books list for a second time (the first, Bad Feminist, is a roaring success so far), I decided to give The Children Act a read. I had yet to talk to anyone who had read the book so bought tentatively and set my expectations on average. As a general rule I avoid stories in hospital settings because I can seldom resist the urge to roll my eyes when a steamy doctor starts his residency by flirting with three or four nurses. And I work in a hospital, so twelve hours within it’s walls three days a week is quite enough thank you! But the controversial topic of religion in medical decisions peaked my interests, and I found that Ian McEwan often tackles this on platforms besides his literature- I was excited to find out more.
The Children Act opens with Fiona Maye, a high court judge who rules on cases in the family division, still shaking from an encounter with her husband Jack. She has just been hurtled from the routine predictability of her marriage. Sipping scotch for the first time in years she goes over the argument in her mind; Jack has just announced that at age sixty and after years of marriage he would like permission to have an affair. Yes, permission. Fiona is outraged, disgusted, and betrayed, although Jake feels his honesty should be enough for her not to be. And running through Fiona’s mind are the thoughts most women would have in her position; Had the affair already begun? What had she done to drive him away? Thus begins the end of their marriage as they know it. In this moment between husband and wife Ian McEwan is incredible at demonstrating where and how this relationship is at the point we see it in now. He aids in our ability to be completely empathetic with Fiona, and although Jake is completely wrong, almost with a sense of entitlement, you understand him too.
In the midst of this breakdown Fiona is called in to rule in an urgent case involving seventeen year old Adam who has leukemia and is refusing lifesaving medical treatment because he is a Jehovah’s Witness. His parents, also Jehovah’s Witnesses, support Adam’s decision so Fiona has to determine whether having the freedom to decide his own medical care is both lawful and in Adam’s best interests. A copious amount of questions arise for Fiona when they meet, and although Adam is only three months shy of his eighteenth birthday and clearly aware of what will happen if he does not receive medical treatment, she asks herself whether he truly knows what death means outside of heaven, martyrdom, and what the church elders tell him. Her ruling comes shortly after they meet and instantly results in crucial impacts on both of them.
Although the story is great, I found one of the best aspects of this book not to be the plot or dialogue, but the way Ian McEwan tells it. The language he uses. He is able to convey Fiona’s imperfections and fears, how she deals with a high stress job in the midst of turmoil with forgivable amateurism. I am twenty four, newly married, a college student, with a reasonably low amount of stress but I was projected into Fiona’s mind state for an entire 240 pages, start to finish. I was instantly a childless woman on the cusp of sixty wondering what the hell was going on. In this it seems that not much changes between my age and Fiona’s.
When Fiona finds herself in a grocery store purchasing a meal for one, Ian McEwan drives home the state Fiona feels now that she has entered this state of purgatory.
At the counter she fumbled with her money, spilling coins onto the floor. The nimble Asian lad working at the till trapped them neatly with his foot, and smiled protectively at her as he put the money in her palm. She imagined herself through his eyes as he took in her exhausted look, ignoring or unable to read the tailored cut of her jacket, seeing clearly one of those harmless biddies who lived and ate alone, no longer quite capable, out in the world for too late at night.
I feel your pain, Fiona.
This story is a very quick and easy read with a satisfying ending that will pinch at your heart strings, I must admit I let out a stifled noooo when I reached the end and found what was awaiting some of the characters. I usually give myself a week or two to finish a book and got done with this one in three, but that is purely because I wanted to get through the story and see what would result from this adult mess. Ian McEwan has joined a list of authors I would like to see on my bookshelf again! Finding a new author to join a shelf crammed with bookish buddies gives me an unreasonable case of ‘the feels’, but doesn’t every book lover get this way?
Have you read The Children Act book or have any Ian McEwan recommendations?