All too often I find McEwan’s books emotionally detached, I fail to connect with his characters, albeit that intellectually I can appreciate their fullness, the flaws that make them human. As a result, I often don’t care very much what happens to them and that, for me, spoils my enjoyment. THE CHILDREN ACT has as its central character, high court judge Fiona Maye, someone I initially found interesting, the kind of woman I’d like to meet and listen to, rather than likeable or sympathetic. She rules in cases such as whether Siamese twins can be separated, who to grant custody to when parents are separating and, in the central case to THE CHILDREN ACT, on whether or not a boy on the cusp of turning eighteen has the right to refuse a blood transfusion to treat his leukemia because it’s not permitted by his beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. The case comes at a difficult time in Fiona’s life – her husband has just told her he wants to have an affair with someone, is hoping she’ll let him do so within the boundaries of their marriage. She kicks him out. A few days later he returns, contrite, nothing having happened with the other woman. Fiona is disappointed he didn’t stay away longer but she accepts him back. Things are frosty but eventually they are reconciled. Against this backdrop, she hears both sides of the argument in the Jehovah’s Witness case, goes to the hospital to visit the boy in question, Adam. Her ruling has a profound effect on his relationship with his faith and Fiona comes to signify something very liberating to Adam. They cross a line, she fails to live up to his expectations. It all ends badly and sadly.
McEwan’s prose, as ever, is sparing. THE CHILDREN ACT is so slim it’s more a short story than a novel. He remains enamoured of professional life and those who have reached the – precarious – pinnacle of their careers. He continues to dissect ethical dilemmas, especially those that pitch science against religion, with microscopic attention. And here in this moment, all that works for me. Perhaps because, as I said earlier, Fiona and her work are interesting to me, and that means I can somehow move beyond the distance McEwan keeps from her. Not quite close enough to feel as she does, but certainly close enough to care a little about her. Then something else happened.
THE CHILDREN ACT is one of the best McEwan books I have read for a while – most of his more recent novels have left me cold. It’s far from perfect. I am still very conscious that I am reading something written by a man who I don’t think is particularly good at creating impressive women characters. Here, for example, there’s a complete failure to accept that Fiona might be fulfilled without a child of her own and he seeks to define her by that, builds the novel around that premise, with Adam cast as the son she never had. But I deliberately chose to get over that, look for a different Fiona, dispute what McEwan is saying. As a result the woman becomes so much more than the writer envisaged and her career is no longer limited by his perception of her. Meeting Adam, her husband’s departure; these events set Fiona free somehow and I let her hold onto that freedom, rather than let McEwan curtail it again. I connected with her far more than makes any kind of sense, turned her into something McEwan’s writing denies, into who I wanted her to be rather than what he had created.
It’s not often I respond like this to a novel – usually I am much more accepting of what the writer gives me. But Fiona touched a nerve in me – maybe because of her age and circumstances, as well as her work – that combined with McEwan’s style seems to have generated something quite unsettling. I am still working it out to be honest. Part of why I value this blog is it makes me think about why I have enjoyed or not enjoyed certain books and occasionally I find I don’t really know. The process of writing a review takes me on a journey, even takes me full circle. But it can also distract me from a gut feeling, a connection that cannot be explained or justified, that’s difficult to put into words. I might never figure it out and that may not matter. It’s unexpected that it’s this book and this writer that’s made me stumble, feel so conflicted, but that in itself is part of what’s interesting. I read after all to be challenged, to be made to think, not simply for answers.