Review: The Children Act

Tough cases settled too easily


By Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape, £16.99

Much of Ian McEwan's best writing has been about children. From his astonishing early stories in the 1970s to The Child in Time and, above all, Atonement, he has seen childhood through a glass darkly. Whether it is what adults do to children or what children do to adults, it rarely ends well.

The Children Act takes a very different, more judicious view of children. Fiona Maye, the novel's central character, is a High Court judge handling family cases. At the beginning of the novel, she is about to adjudicate on three cases.

One involves a Jewish couple who cannot agree about their daughters' education. The mother is the more liberal and she wants her daughters to go on to university to prepare them for careers. Her Orthodox husband sees this as a betrayal of his religious values.

The second case has been brought by an Englishwoman who is trying to prevent her Moroccan husband from taking their daughter to Morocco.

The final case concerns a 17-year-old suffering from leukaemia. He urgently needs a blood transfusion but both he and his parents are devout Jehovah's Witnesses and see this as a breach of his human rights. They want to stop the hospital proceeding with the transfusion.

All three cases involve children's rights and religion. Or, rather, they involve the clash between secular and religious values, either within a family or between medical science and religion.

These are not just questions of law. McEwan uses these cases to discuss a larger cultural battle between secularism and rationality, on the one hand, and religious orthodoxy, on the other. It is a very topical examination of the clash between values, today's Kulturkampf.

The words "reasonable" and "irrational" recur throughout. Another key word is "kindness". "Kindness", McEwan writes in one of the most important sentences in the book, "was the essential human ingredient." Fiona, a deeply sympathetic character, brings together kindness and rationality.

She is remarkably like Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon in McEwan's 2005 novel, Saturday. Like him, she is decent, rational and liberal, and is confronted with the sudden eruption of the dangerous and irrational into her world.

This takes two forms. At home, her husband, Jack, longing for one last passionate affair, threatens to destroy their marriage. And then, in her work, one of the cases she is dealing with suddenly threatens her with ruin.

McEwan has often been drawn to the clash between civilised values and violence. These upper-middle-class lives that seem so prosperous and stable are suddenly threatened with breakdown. The novel turns out to be about the fragility of life; a subject for our times.

However, here it also turns out to be a kind of moral kitsch. The cases have the feel of a TV movie not a great novel. Guardian values triumph too easily. Sadly, The Children Act lacks the bite and darkness of McEwan's best writing. Where they were once original, even grotesque, this is predictable and sentimental.

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