Book review: Ian McEwan’s ‘The Children Act’

The Children Act. Ian McEwan. Nan A. Talese. 240 pages. $25.
The Children Act. Ian McEwan. Nan A. Talese. 240 pages. $25.

Ian McEwan’s new novel opens with an allusion to Bleak House, Dickens’ triple-decker indictment of British jurisprudence. This bewigged legal system comes under tighter scrutiny in The Children Act, a disappointing look at the fateful consequences of a bioethics case. The chief selling point is its merciful brevity.

When we first see our protagonist, she is having a bad day. Fiona Maye’s career as a family court judge is running smoothly. Her even temper and well-written opinions are celebrated. “Godly distance, devilish understanding, and still beautiful,” a peer gushes. But all is not well at home. One summer evening in 2012 her husband, a history professor more interested in the future than in the past, announces that he is leaving her for a younger woman.

As she quietly rages at this betrayal, she must preside over an emergency hearing to determine whether two Jehovah’s Witnesses can prohibit a hospital from giving their underage son a blood transfusion as part of his treatment for leukemia. What complicates matters is that the boy, who accepts his parents’ religious beliefs, is no child. In a few months he will turn eighteen.

The stage is set for an exciting courtroom drama, right? Go elsewhere for that. McEwan subjects us to polite barristers who bolster their dry arguments with precedent. All very realistic — and dull. Dialogue is minimal, not only here but throughout the narrative. Paraphrase is a useful tool, of course; it frees the writer to roam the landscape of his imagination without having to pitch a tent, so to speak, by developing specific scenes.

This is a key difference between prose fiction and screenplays. But I can’t help wondering if McEwan’s essayistic tone is a response to the thinness of his plot. Is he telling so much because there is little to show?

Following a visit to the ailing boy, during which she is taken with his love of poetry and music (in her spare time the judge plays classical piano), Fiona rules in favor of the hospital. No spoiler alert was necessary; the outcome is clear from the beginning. McEwan chose a case barely worthy of an after school special. An atheist who has been outspoken in his opposition to religious extremism, he is obviously making a comment about science and faith. But the headlines provide fresher examples of this ongoing conflict than the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ objection to transfusions.

And then, surprisingly, McEwan switches film canisters. Whose Life Is It Anyway? turns into Fatal Attraction as the boy, now a recovering apostate, falls in love with Fiona and begins stalking her. The reader leans forward expectantly. Is an illicit romance in the offing? Will the boy try to do Fiona harm?

McEwan has traveled down this road before, in Enduring Love, a disturbing story of one man’s erotomaniacal obsession for another. But while that work was thrilling and tense, the denouement of The Children Act is anticlimactic.

It also pays poor homage to James Joyce’s greatest short story. The Dead has a breathtakingly sad ending: A wife reveals to her understanding husband that he is not the love of her life; that honor is reserved for a dead boy who killed himself in a fit of passion when she was young. A similar scene in McEwan’s novel falls flat; the level of creepiness to the relationship dilutes the emotional impact.

McEwan has produced soul-shaking stuff in the past. Who can forget the devastating accusation in Atonement or the perverse violence of The Comfort of Strangers? Children have always played a role in his fiction. They grow up too quickly in McEwan’s morally problematic world. at times their own dark impulses cause their innocent skins to shed. Buried somewhere in The Children Act is a decent short story that might have contributed to this theme.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.