This novel is a slow, tidy, and compelling third-person-limited study of an aging family court judge. Fiona Maye’s job requires her to make shrewd, compassionate, and ethically sound judgments involving the welfare of children. The title refers to a 1989 British law known as the Children Act (which sounds awkward and wrong to my American ear, which wants to hear ‘Children’s Act,’ but I digress), which states that the child’s welfare (which British law defines as encompassing interests and well-being) must always be the judge’s first priority in any case impacting the lives of children. Fiona is highly respected by her colleagues and has served as a judge for many years; it is clear from the beginning of the novel that she is deeply committed to her job for all of the right reasons.
With five long chapters resembling dramatic acts, this novel is structured like a Shakespeare play, except that it is neither comedy nor tragedy nor history but fundamentally a work of painstaking, intricate realism. This may be the most realistic novel I have read in years, with not a note out of place. In the first long chapter, we see the cases that cross Fiona’s desk in the course of a day: that of an Orthodox Jewish woman defying her community’s tradition by divorcing her husband and seeking to educate their children in secular schools, parents of conjoined twins seeking permission not to have the twins surgically separated – a procedure that would save one twin’s life at the expense of another – against the advice of doctors trained to save lives at any cost, and a hospital seeking permission to transfuse a seventeen year-old leukemia patient against the wishes of the boy and his parents, all of whom are devout Jehovah’s Witnesses and forbidden from receiving blood transfusions. Fiona cares deeply about all parties in these cases and takes her responsibility as judge very seriously, but we are also aware that cases like these take place against a constant background static of pettiness and bickering: divorcing couples seeking to wound their former spouses at any cost, children used as pawns, obscene amounts of money spent on lawyers and demanded in alimony. This stripped-down presentation of Fiona’s life – a constant scrim of meanness and petty demands and egos trouncing other egos punctuated by human beings striving to be not only good but perfect, faced with horrible choices and threat of unbearable loss and guilt – seems a perfectly accurate rendering of the human condition. This is what I mean when I emphasize just how realistic this novel is.
But of course there’s more. Also in this first act, we learn that Fiona’s own marriage is in trouble. Her husband Jack – a respected geology professor – confronts her about the sexlessness of their marriage and presents an ultimatum: she must become more receptive to sex or accept the fact that he will seek out another woman. This problem must have been familiar to Fiona, since she immediately knows the woman he plans to have an affair with: a twenty-eight year-old statistician named Melanie. Those damned statisticians and their home-wrecking ways. Jezebels – all of them.
This confrontation happens in the novel’s opening pages, and I had no clear sense of who was wronging whom when I read it for the first time. Jack is calm and reasonable: “Didn’t you once tell me that couples in long marriages aspire to the condition of siblings?” he asks her. “We’ve arrived, Fiona. I’ve become your brother. It’s cozy and sweet and I love you, but before I drop dead I want one big passionate affair” (6-7). Since Fiona is the point-of-view character, we are alert to her feelings – and she is angry and hurt, of course, but what she feels most is an absolute lack of empathy. She cannot fathom wanting what Jack wants: “one last fling.” “To risk all they had just so he could relive a passing sensual thrill! When she tried to imagine wanting something like it for herself – her ‘last fling’ would be her first – she could think only of disruption, assignations, disappointment, ill-timed phone calls. The sticky business of learning to be with someone new in bed, newly devised endearments, all the fakery” (7-8). Of course it’s significant that Fiona works on a daily basis in close contact with the worst things that can happen to couples and families – abandonment, vengefulness, impossible choices – while Jack works at a university, where a perpetually-young crew of 18-30 year-olds parades past him full of twentysomething self-confidence, twentysomething ambitions, and, of course, ease and pleasure intheir twentysomething bodies, only to attain their degrees and move away to face the realities of middle age somewhere else. Fiona’s career exposes her to precisely the subset of the population that her husband never sees, and vice versa.
It’s also significant that the Mayes are childless. No reason is ever given for this fact, but we know that Fiona thinks of their childlessness often – not with pain exactly, but with subtle, muted regret. It’s clear that both Jack and Fiona love children; their home includes a guest bedroom filled with toys, and they host their nieces and nephews often. To speculate that Fiona never found time for the rigors of pregnancy and new motherhood as a result of her demanding career is reasonable, though there is nothing in the novel to suggest that she ever made a conscious choice not to have children for professional reasons.
As the novel progresses, it zeroes in on the young Jehovah’s Witness boy facing an early death from leukemia if he does not receive transfused blood. Told that she must make an immediate decision because his health is in immediate jeopardy, Fiona – not satisfied hearing only from his parents, his doctors, and other officials called to testify before her in court – takes a taxi to the hospital and meets the boy for herself. What happens there is wonderful in many ways, but this scene also contains the only real false note that I found in this otherwise beautifully realistic novel. Adam Henry is an intelligent seventeen year-old raised in a sheltered religious family and is now confined to a hospital bed and desperately ill with leukemia. Since his ability (or lack thereof) to make informed choices about his health is at the heart of the decision Fiona needs to make, we are told over and over again by Adam’s parents, various religious authorities, doctors, nurses, and social workers, and Fiona herself that Adam is without doubt fully capable of mature and reasoned thought, that he “knows his own mind,” that he understands the imminence of his death if he does not receive a transfusion and is prepared to accept the early curtailment of his life. Yet all of these sober, educated, responsible people seem to have missed something that was clear to me – a lowly former high school teacher – from the moment Adam is presented on the page: the fact that the boy is in the middle of a manic episode.
By the time Fiona arrives at Adam’s hospital room, he has already developed a reputation for staying up all night writing poetry and then corralling nurses at his bedside while he reads his poems to them. Having never played a musical instrument before, he has demanded that his parents bring him a violin and spends hours teaching himself to play it in his hospital bed. His eager conversation with Fiona indicates that he is intelligent, but also that he is prone to some racing and/or disordered thoughts and possibly also some mild paranoia: “he was telling her how strange it was, he had known all along that she would visit him, that he thought he had this knack, this feel for the future, that they had read a poem in school in religious studies which said that the future, present, and past were all one, and this was what the Bible said too. His chemistry teacher said relativity proved that time was an illusion. And if God, poetry, and science all said the same thing, it had to be true, didn’t she think?’ (103-4)
If McEwan intended Adam to be in a manic state of some kind, then I think he has done a fine job of rendering such a state – but I am puzzled about why Fiona, with all her experience and expertise, fails to recognize his disordered thinking. I am no expert on leukemia, but every other written description of this disease I have encountered emphasizes that its patients are nearly immobilized with fatigue – and even later in this novel, when Fiona (spoiler alert!) makes the decision that the hospital can transfuse Adam against his wishes, he tells her in a letter that he was too tired to resist the transfusion. I have no doubt that it’s possible for a patient to suffer from acute leukemia and a manic episode at the same time, and I don’t know which set of symptoms would take precedence over the other in this situation. It’s not Adam’s manic behavior (which persists after he becomes well, by the way) that bothers me; it’s the fact that no one – not Fiona, not the doctors and nurses in the hospital, not the social worker assigned to his case – seems to recognize it. That’s my only reservation; in every other way this novel is pitch-perfect.
And there’s one more element, too. Adam Henry is not the only musician in this novel. In addition to being a devoted and accomplished jurist, Fiona is also a pianist of great talent and skill. Music is her primary refuge as she struggles with her marriage throughout the novel – and, in particular, Fiona is known among her colleagues for the duets she performs with a colleague – a male lawyer named Berner – at periodic parties. These parties are obnoxiously civilized: the women slink around in black silk; the men are charming and wear three-piece suits, scarves and handkerchiefs added here and there for a touch of color and whimsy. I picture endless heads of salt-and-pepper hair slicked back insouciantly. Everyone mingles and sips champagne and is brilliantly charming, but no one gets drunk or expresses any kind of emotion out of sync with the group – and at a predetermined moment a servant of some kind circulates with a tray and all the guests willingly surrender their glasses to him, horrified by the idea that the accidental clink of a wine glass might interrupt the musical interlude. Then everyone surrenders to raptures of delight as Fiona and Berner perform together.
This scene should resonate against the tensions in Fiona’s marriage – but the thing is, it doesn’t. Fiona feels a deep and genuine connection with Berner as a fellow musician, and they deeply enjoy performing together, but never once does Fiona seem even to consider Berner as a romantic interest, nor does he seem to consider her in this way, nor does Jack – who cherishes these performances as much as everyone else – seem inclined to be jealous. Of course it makes sense that Jack trusts Fiona implicitly after their three decades of marriage – we’ve been told they are like siblings, after all – but this scene seems calibrated as an intensifier of some aspect of the adultery plot (which does unfold, by the way – Jack does leave Fiona for Melanie, though he soon returns). What this scene does resonate with, however, is Fiona’s visit with Adam Henry in his hospital room, when he plays his new violin clumsily while she sings (by coincidence the tune he has taught himself to play is the same one that Fiona often performs with Berner and is written to the lyrics of Yeats’ poem “Down by the Salley Gardens”) – and, as you might imagine, there is more to the Adam Henry plot – quite a bit more – that I’m going to leave for you to discover on your own. I don’t entirely know where McEwan is going with the musical component of the plot, but I have no doubt the scene is ambiguous by design.
I can’t remember the last time I had such a pleasurable push-and-pull relationship with a novel. On the one hand, McEwan’s orchestration of this novel is managed with complete authority; on the other, without my own “diagnosis” of Adam’s manic episode, I feel the novel is incomplete. Is it possible that McEwan anticipated this, and left out all references to Adam’s mania in order to invite the reader in, as pseudo-expert and diagnostician, necessarily complicit in Fiona’s decision to order Adam transfused? It’s true that the characters in this novel tend to pair themselves off: Fiona and Jack, Jack and Melanie, Fiona and Berner, Fiona and Adam, Fiona and Berner, even the conjoined twins in the novel’s opening chapter – could author and reader be another one of these pairings that contribute to the constant tension at the novel’s core? Could McEwan be that shrewd? Is anyone that shrewd?
It’s an impossible question, probably – but what a privilege to consider it.