The Children Act by Ian McEwan

There is a ridiculous game in which people ask themselves who their ideal guests at a fantasy dinner party would be, dead or alive. I usually roll my eyes and groan inwardly whenever this question is presented to me. The ludicrousness of the notion bores me senseless. But if I HAD to pick one, and I’m talking gun-at-my-head moment, then Ian McEwan would definitely be on the guest list. Him and his clever clan of comrades including Christopher Hitchens (dead), Salman Rushdie (alive), and Martin Amis (alive). This quadrumvirate of superior intellects and creative geniuses absolutely fascinate me not only for their collective body of work but also for the fact they are indeed close friends. But let’s be honest. If I were faced with the prospect of dinner with these fine four, I would be mute with inferiority or squealing with excess inebriation. Neither of these prospects makes for a sophisticated Saturday night.

But back to McEwan.

While Amsterdam and Atonement were my first and second McEwan novels (I wrote about Atonement here), The Children Act has been the latest pleasure. Atonement is a hefty tome spanning many years and much global turmoil including a world war (the second one). In many respects The Children Act is the antithesis of this. Lighter in page numbers than Atonement and set in the microcosm of the judiciary, The Children Act follows a specific moment in time for its protagonist, Fiona Maye. Fiona is a high court judge who must decide the fate of a child who, for religious reasons, is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion. The ‘child’ is 17 and will be an adult in a few months time so Fiona is faced with the ethical dilemma of deciding the fate of the life of someone who is a breath away from being an adult. This is coupled with the fact that she presides over a secular institution and is making a decision based on the religious acts of her defendant (the hospital caring for the child is prosecuting the case).

Make no mistake; while The Children Act is set against a backdrop of a small section of society few of us are exposed to, there are enormous themes about the human condition and the ethics of human life. The subject matter is rich in questions, many of which are unanswered and perplexing.

I wouldn’t say this is McEwan’s greatest novel, but it is small and mighty and it made me think. That, if anything else, is worth the afternoon’s reading investment.