THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan (Vintage Books, 2014)

With this novella’s strong focus on the burden of mortality and the melancholy reflections on ‘what-ifs’ from the past, it seems to me that, not for the first time, Ian McEwan takes a lot of inspiration from James Joyce’s Dubliners and ‘from The Dead’ in particular.

The delicate line that divides life and death centres on the fictional case of a 17-year-old boy, Adam Henry, who will almost certainly die unless he receives a blood transfusion. Since he has not quite reached the age of consent, the decision over his treatment rests with his parents who are both Jehovah’s Witnesses.

McEwan is an Atheist but he is interested in the nature of belief so is not about to score cheap points criticising the rigid application of religious principles. The opposition to transfusions is therefore presented as a serious moral dilemma rather than merely the result of blinkered thinking.

The weight of the law, administered by The Family Division, is called to bear on this case with the decision being a questions of legality not morality (“The court takes no view on an afterlife”).

The verdict is delivered by Fiona Maye, a high court duty judge in her 50s who is more securely married to the law than to her husband. She has no children herself and there are numerous indications that she regrets this life choice.

Fiona is a respecter of rules to the point of inflexibility. She’s a moderately talented amateur musician but significantly is more comfortable playing classical piano pieces than experimental jazz. While improvisation does not come naturally to her, she takes the unorthodox decision to visit the boy in hospital before making her judgement. Fiona’s verdict Adam Henry “must be protected from his religion and himself” has dramatic consequences that intrudes upon her personal life.

Her dispassionate statement that “life is more precious than dignity” is a reminder that blind faith is no substitute for reason but that human frailty lies at the heart of all our choices. McEwan’s writing is, as ever, matriculate, composed and compassionate.

After the disappointments of Sweet Tooth and Solar, this is a return to form and McEwan’s best work since On Chesil Beach.

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