Thoughts on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act (by Jill)

the children act cover image


I haven’t written a post about a book that Bethany has already reviewed for the blog in quite a while. I am, as usual when I have to do this, overcome with anxiety that mine will look amateurish next to hers, and that everyone will laugh at yet another of my pitiful attempts to be a book blogger. But I’ll press on, because it’s April, after all, and we are on a post-a-day mission again. The good news for me is that Bethany’s post has a great plot summary, so I don’t have to do that work. Please feel free to pause in your reading to check out Bethany’s post about The Children Act before continuing on.

Oh, good, you’re back from Bethany’s post. So here’s the deal: to me, this book is about two things: how women in emotionally demanding professions manage their lives and Jehovah’s Witnesses and their ridiculous rules. Fiona Maye is a woman “in her sixtieth year,” who is a family court judge in London. Her husband of many years, Jack, is a geology professor. They have a full and happy life (though childless, which is often mentioned though never actually discussed), until one day when Jack announces that he’d like to have an affair with a statistician he knows. Fiona is not so into this proposition. Turns out that a case she tried seven weeks before has been so much on her mind that she hasn’t been “in the mood” since it ended. What astounds me is that if their marriage was so rock solid after thirty five years why in the hell would seven weeks and one day of not having relations be enough to drive Jack into the arms of another woman? And why wouldn’t Fiona talk to Jack about what has been bothering her? Is this some sort of English thing? What else has been going on in their marriage that seven weeks without sex makes Jack think of straying?

Which brings me to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Adam Henry is a seventeen-year-old Witness with leukemia. He is in need of a blood transfusion as part of his treatment protocol and he and his parents have refused it, in keeping with their religion’s prohibition against receiving blood, despite the fact that without it he will surely die. The hospital has filed suit to overrule the family, as Adam is a minor, though only for a few more months. Adam Henry is indeed a fascinating boy, and Fiona is captivated by him when she goes to meet him prior to rendering her decision in his case. Bethany mentioned that she suspected Adam was in the midst of a manic episode during this scene, and I can see why she would think that: he is horribly anemic and yet he is trying to do a hundred things at once, staying up late writing poetry and teaching himself the violin. He says he understands what it means to decline the blood transfusion (he will soon die), and yet he doesn’t seem to be at peace with his decision. Fiona thinks, “It occurred to her that this intellectually precocious young fellow was simply bored, understimulated, and that by threatening his own life he had set in motion a fascinating drama in which he starred in every scene, and which had brought to his bedside a parade of important and importuning adults (47%).” While announcing her decision, Fiona says, “He possesses exceptional insight for a seventeen-year-old. But I find that he has little concept of the ordeal that would face him, of the fear that would overwhelm him as his suffering and helplessness increased. In fact, he has a romantic notion of what it is to suffer (56%)….” Adam may or may not be manic, but he is definitely freaking out about dying, try as he might to not appear that way. The decision Fiona makes is a fairly easy one from the perspective of most modern, rational people. But I won’t say any more about it. Read for yourself.

The Children Act is my third Ian McEwan book, and I think it’s my favorite of the three. It went quickly, as his novels tend to do, though I have no idea of page count since I read it on the Kindle. One thing I don’t like about a Kindle is the lack of feeling the book in your hand. It’s nice in a way, because every book weighs the same, and now they all fit in my purse. But it’s hard to give up the feeling of knowing how long a book is by feeling it in your hands, you know? There was a bit of English law jargon that I didn’t quite understand, but it didn’t seem to impact the plot much, at least not as far as I know. Fiona, to me, seems to be suffering from over-compartmentalization syndrome, which is a term I just invented to describe what happens to a professional woman who sees and hears the worst of humanity day in and day out until she becomes completely inured to all of it. In my mind this is a side-effect of compassion fatigue. I see this in myself sometimes, but it’s something I have to do—I can’t be sad about every patient I lose all the time or else I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. So every patient gets a little box, and when they die, they get put in their box, and they get filed away in the back of my mind where I don’t have to think about them or talk about them. Talking about them would let their little box open, and if one opens, I fear they will all open, and then I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. And how can I work from bed? I don’t that kind of job. I suspect this is what Fiona’s issue is with talking to Jack about what’s bothering her—the hard stuff has gotten to be too hard to talk about and it’s easier to close herself up and put every case in its little box than to actually speak about things. So now I’ve got Fiona and Jack all figured out. Probably she has been putting things into little boxes for so long that he got fed up with it, and the seven weeks without sex was probably the last straw. So there. Got Jack and Fiona all sorted out.

I think most people will find something (or perhaps many things) to enjoy in this book. I’d love to have a conversation about the Jehovah’s Witness stuff with my hubby soon, now that I’ve finished it. We started to talk about it a bit a few nights ago and we just ended up bickering about what types of IV fluids there are and what would be considered a suitable synthetic replacement for blood for a Witness. I would almost enjoy a sequel to The Children Act, chronicling more of Fiona’s interesting cases. This could even be a TV show, now that I think about it.

This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Ian McEwan, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

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