The Children Act by Ian McEwan: A review

The Children ActThe Children Act by Ian McEwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Children Act is a part of the regulations governing the judicial process in family law in the courts of England. Its overarching principle is that judicial decisions should always be in the best interests of the child.

This is the principle which guides the thinking and the acts of Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in London, who presides over family court cases. She is fifty-nine years old and has devoted her life to the law. She has held her position for a long time and is well-respected by her colleagues as being fiercely intelligent and deeply immersed in the nuances of her chosen field of the law, as well as thoroughly dedicated to that well-known overarching principle.

Though a champion on behalf of children's welfare, Fiona has no children of her own. In their busy professional lives, she and her long-time husband, Jack, never had time for them. Jack is an academic, a professor and writer. They have many nieces and nephews to whom they are devoted and who they frequently entertain at their London flat, but they've never had the experience of being responsible for a child's daily care.

As a family court judge, Fiona must be sensitive to cultural mores and religious beliefs in deciding the cases before her. These considerations complicate the actions required of a judge to ensure the child's welfare. And it is such considerations that will cause Fiona anguish in the case which is at the center of The Children Act.

But this isn't a straightforward story about that case. That might qualify as a legal thriller, but this story is much more than that.

As Fiona faces a mind-bending load of cases and is completely absorbed in her work, Jack announces that he is no longer fulfilled in their marriage. He complains that they haven't had sex in seven weeks and a day and that he wants to try to find sexual ecstasy elsewhere. He has a candidate in mind for this adventure, a 28-year-old statistician. He assures Fiona that he hasn't started an affair with the woman...yet. He wants everything to be transparent, out in the open. Fiona is not amenable.

Jack packs a bag and leaves. Fiona is left alone to face perhaps her most difficult case.

A seventeen-year-old boy has contracted leukemia and is in serious condition. His doctors believe they can save him with well-established medical treatment. The problem is that the treatment involves transfusions of blood and the child and his parents are Jehovah's Witnesses. They believe that such transfusions are evil, literally the work of Satan. They have refused the treatment. The hospital has sued to be allowed to go ahead with the prescribed therapy in spite of the family's objections in order to save the child's life.

The controversy, of course, creates a media storm, but Fiona must put all of that and her personal sorrows aside and concentrate upon this complicated case with all of its cultural and religious implications and, referring to the pertinent laws, she must make a decision that will be in the child's best interest. Her decision will likely mean either life or death for a sick boy.

This is a beautifully written, enthralling story about the law and about fascinating, fully-realized characters for whom the reader learns to care. It is ultimately a sad but uplifting story about human possibilities and resilience. In the end, Fiona's life or death decision, which is completely sound and based in law, could be said to lead to both. Perhaps that is the final irony of the tale.

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  1. Replies
    1. I believe you would enjoy it, Carmen. I found it hard to put down.

  2. Our book club read this book, and it inspired a spirited discussion. I've read everything Ian McEwan has written -- he is a brilliant author, always well worth reading. The only book of his I wasn't completely enamored with was The Cement Garden.

    1. He is indeed a fantastic writer and makes it all seem so effortless. The story just flows, but I know it must take a great deal of skill and talent to pull that off.


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