London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather.
So begins Ian McEwan’s 2014 novel The Children Act. More of a novella, at just 213 pages, other writers may try to pack as much into a 500 page epic. That’s the beauty of McEwan, his simplicity, his respect for elegant prose. McEwan always writes on different levels. Each exists in a reformed, but as vibrant London as ever. Here like other McEwan novels (see Atonement or Sweet Tooth), a female character is at the centre of period of just a year. Within that year, High Court June’s personal, martial and work life is transformed.
She entered, the court rose, she sat and watched the parties below her settle. At her elbow was a slim pile of creamy white paper beside which she laid down her pen. It was only then, at the sight of these clean sheets, that the last traces, the stain of her own situation vanished completely. She no longer had a private life, she was ready to be absorbed.
Fiona is one of the most compelling characters in any novel. I did wonder if McEwan had read Tim Winton’s Eyrie. Both have female characters that are compassionate, successful, brilliant in their careers. As a male, McEwan has this ability to write female characters. He allows for flaws without hysterics or at the fault of the males.
The high-ceiling end Victorian ward was clean and orderly, the frightening ward sister protective towards her youngest patient…
For Fiona, there is Jack. Her academic husband, while not as ambitious, a success in his field. He sips from a drink as he proposes an open marriage. This brilliant person, a highly successful barrister, a member of a esteemed group of people on the High Court, ironically specialising in family law, feels her marriage falling apart. Her reaction? Go for it, but don’t live here.
Professional and social madness. In memory, the actual contact, flesh on flesh, tended to extend in time.
Fiona throws herself into work. It consumes the same afternoon of the proposal. The legalese flows effortlessly from McEwan. His novels are always rich with his research. His basis for the case at the centre of the novel is based upon two case on either side of the turn of the century. This case is different for Fiona. Religion and her own childless marriage intersect. She has to make a choice for a young man with cancer. His religion says he can’t have the blood transfusion that would save his life.
At least he was no longer saying he loved her.
The novel completes an entire cycle. Nephews and nieces visit Fiona and Jack. She travels north to sit on cases involving the ‘greedy and the greedy.’ All the while, the boy with cancer, now recovered and questioning his parents indoctrination, communicates with her. The letters and poetry do not receive reply, but to say they are forgotten by Fiona would dismiss her analysis of the words for her.
She was beyond speech and the crying would not to stop and she could not bear any longer to be seen.
The last part of the novel is surreal triumph. Music and the interlinking world of law coming together. Fiona, still a beacon of strength and integrity, plays for her peers. Her performance gains a standing ovation. No matter what moves in her private life or the news of Adam can match the room flowing from beneath the stage and her fingers on the piano.
A novel of faith and community. As Fiona says no child is an island, the welfare of one is the matter of all. The act of adults, no matter their religion or background are excused from that fact.