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Onyx reviews: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 08/23/2014

The Children Act might be described as a small book. It's only a little more than two hundred pages and focuses exclusively on one character, Fiona Maye, a family court judge in London who is approaching sixty. However, the book tackles big concepts about the legal system, religion, marriage and even the place music has in life.

Fiona and her husband, Jack, a professor of ancient history, have never found time to raise a family and recently don't even have time for sex. The book opens with Jack's stunning announcement that he wants to engage in an affair with a much younger woman. He doesn't want a divorce—in fact, he doesn't want anything in their marriage to change. He still loves Fiona, he claims, but his sexual needs aren't being met (he knows to the day how long it's been since the last time they made love), so something has to change. At least he's asking up front instead of sneaking around and having her find out later on.

Naturally, her husband's proposal doesn't sound as reasonable to Fiona as it does to him, so a crisis in their long marriage occurs. Fiona has to be aware of appearances, so she keeps their conflict from her colleagues but finds herself in the unusual position of sitting in judgment of the lives of other families while her own is crumbling. 

It's more than sex, her husband admits when forced to explore his feelings. Fiona has been emotionally unavailable for months. She no longer shares what's on her mind. Fiona knows exactly what has been troubling her, but can't find the words to explain it. She was asked recently to make a difficult decision and though she has been lauded for her rational judgment, the outcome still weighs heavily on her. She allowed a hospital to sacrifice an unviable child to save the life of his conjoined twin. Without action, both children would have died, and the parents were willing to let things go God's way. Fiona is guided by the 1989 Children Act, which puts the welfare of the child ahead of all other considerations. 

In another case that is more central to the novel, Fiona overrides a teenager with leukemia and his parents when they refuse a life-saving blood transfusion on religious grounds. Shaken by her rocky relationship, she becomes more involved in the case than usual. Her judgment is clouded and a lapse drives home the importance of what she does and how her decisions impact the lives of others.

McEwan lays out the cases Fiona handles in depth, along with her rationale for making her decisions. Some cases, McEwan states in the afterword, are based on real life but that's not what's important about them. Fiona must decide what is in the best interests of the child or children in these situations and what the word "welfare" means, or can mean, in different circumstances. 

The book also delves into religion and the level to which society must or should take into account the sometimes arcane beliefs of non-mainstream sects (and, by extension, even the more mainstream ones). The metaphor that captures this book's argument is the contrast between Fiona, who is level-headed and rational and her husband, who is passionate and, McEwan seems to imply, irrational in much the same way that overly zealous people can be. Should children be allowed to die when to act contravenes the fundamental beliefs of parents? How much should the court take into account the fervent belief system of a teenager who is only slightly under the age where he can legally make his own medical decisions? Fiona's intervention in the boy's case has unexpected implications: for the boy, for his family and their religious tenets, and for Fiona herself and her troubled marriage.

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