Ethical dilemmas dominate in Ian McEwan’s The Children Act
How does a judge in the Family Division of the High Court protect the interests of a young person when the secular world of medical expertise conflicts with the deeply held religious convictions of parents? This is the conundrum Ian McEwan sets out to explore in his latest novel, The Children Act. Fiona Maye’s life is in turmoil. Although she is a High Court judge, her private life is a calamity – her husband, Jack, is leaving her for a 28 year old; she is childless and facing life alone. To make matters worse, Jack has barely been gone for more than a few days before he trails back humiliated and seeking a way back into the marriage. In the midst of this domestic carnage, Fiona is also embroiled in a child protection case that soon dominates her life. Asked to rule on the case of a teenage boy who is refusing a blood transfusion because he and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Maye finds herself travelling to the hospital to meet with the boy in an attempt to establish whether he is being unduly influenced by his parents or the religious elders who visit him on a regular basis. She finds the boy personable and precocious and is clearly more emotionally connected to him than she is comfortable with. Ultimately, however, she overturns the will of the boy and his family and orders the transfusion to go ahead. The impact of this decision on the boy and on Fiona is played out to what is an unexpected and ultimately tragic end. Maye is forced to confront the moral and ethical dilemmas that arise from her judicial status and how that collides with her feelings as both a woman and a human being. This is a short novel – something McEwan is particularly fond of – and the subject matter is dramatic and ripe with possibilities. Despite this, however, the book never convinces and rarely engages the reader in the emotional conundrum it sets up. The characterisation seems perfunctory and it is hard to believe the plot mechanism that brings the judge and the boy together again after the court ruling on his treatment. It certainly stretches credibility that a High Court judge in her middle 50s would display such crass ill-judgement in the way she handles her relationship with the young man. In the end it feels that McEwan is more fascinated by the technical process of how judgements are arrived at in the Family Court and is clearly entranced by the language in which they are prepared. His admiration for this technical aspect of the job stands out like a beacon in his writing and ultimately this, to the overall detriment of the book as a novel, overwhelms the rather flimsy central storyline.