Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"The Children Act," by Ian McEwan

Whenever I read British author Ian McEwan’s novels, I think of my late friend C., about whom I have written in this space; she was one of my best friends, and best book friends; she died in 2011. I still miss her so much. And one thing I miss, among many others, is the way she and I would exchange recommendations and comments about books, in emails, phone calls, and yes, old-fashioned letters, across the continent and further. (After graduate school, where I met her, she lived in Pennsylvania, Japan, New York, Montreal, and Washington, DC.) She was the one who kept recommending, many years ago, that I read McEwan’s novels. At first I resisted; I hadn’t heard much about his work (this was before he became so well-known), and what I heard didn’t sound like “my type" of novels. Finally I read “Atonement,” and that was it – I was a McEwan reader. I went back and read some of his earlier novels, which I didn’t always like as much, but still appreciated. And I have read every novel he has written since then. I have liked them, although with some caveats, except for “Solar,” about which I was less enthusiastic (see my post of 4/17/10). I think McEwan is a wonderful writer who writes on varied topics, always with depth and humanity. I have just read his newest novel, “The Children Act” (Doubleday, 2014), and found that it continues in this tradition. The author takes on an important social issue and makes it come alive for the reader. The situation is this: Judge Fiona Maye, of the Family Court, must decide on a case in which a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness and his parents do not want him to be treated with a blood transfusion, which is against their religious beliefs. The hospital in which young Adam is being treated has asked the court to overrule this objection, in order to most effectively treat his cancer and save his life; otherwise he will surely die. The “Children Act” is the applicable law that Fiona must interpret in this case. She listens to the arguments, and rather unconventionally, goes to visit and interview Adam in the hospital. On the one hand, she wants to honor his beliefs, but on the other hand, she feels he is too young to make such a momentous decision and give up his life. She is drawn to him, a very bright and creative young man, and they share interests in music and poetry. I will not reveal the ensuing plot developments, as she gets to know Adam better, but must maintain her judicial distance, and I of course will not say here what she decides, and how the story ends. It is a riveting story, although McEwan is too good a writer to ratchet up the suspense factor artificially. The novel is about a social issue, but we also get to know two complex and compelling characters in Fiona and Adam. Meanwhile, there is another intertwining story element: Fiona’s 30-year and seemingly very good marriage seems to be unraveling after her husband has delivered a jarring demand. Again, I will of course not reveal the resolution of this storyline. All in all, “The Children Act” is a thoughtful, beautifully written, important novel.

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