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The Children Act

September 8, 2014

I asked for an advance copy of Ian McEwan’s new novel The Children Act when I saw it on a list in an e-mail from Doubleday, and I read it at the beach, which is not the way I recommend that anyone else read it (since it’s out tomorrow, September 9, there’s probably little chance). It’s a serious novel, and occasionally the way I felt about it was not the way I was feeling about being at one of my favorite places on earth with many of the people I love most. It was a bit jarring, actually, especially at the end.

There’s an intensity to this novel that will not surprise anyone who loved Atonement. Perhaps because I am so squarely in its target audience—an educated professional in a marriage of a certain age—I found The Children Act even more intense, impossible as that may seem.

It begins with a Sunday evening at home in London for Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, and her husband Jack, whose profession becomes apparent later, after he is introduced. We meet him as he is telling Fiona he wants to have an affair because “I’ve become your brother. It’s cozy and sweet and I love you, but before I drop dead, I want one big passionate affair.” Despite this introduction to Jack, though, readers see him doing everything possible to save his marriage and stay close to Fiona. He repeatedly asks Fiona what is troubling her, and despite pages of explanation for readers, she is inexplicably unable to talk to him about it, perhaps because he has phrased the question in the context of why they have not had sex for a while and she finds it nearly impossible to connect what is going on in her head and her irrational responses to what she is exposed to at work to the way she thinks of herself at home and in her marriage.

Here is her reflection, a career woman’s catch-22, about what she can’t tell Jack:
“How was she to talk about this? Barely plausible, to have told him that at this stage of a legal career, this one case among so many others, its sadness, its visceral details and loud public interest, could affect her so intimately.”

Readers my age will probably cringe in recognition at some part of this description of the couple:
Not the full withering, not just yet, but its early promise was shining through, just as one might catch in a certain light a glimpse of the adult in a ten year old’s face. If Jack, sprawled across from her, seemed almost absurd in this conversation, then how much more so must she appear to him. His white chest hair, or which he remained proud, curled out over his shirt’s top button only to declare that it was no longer black; the head hair, thinning monkishly in the familiar pattern, he had grown long in unconvincing compensation; shanks less muscular, not quite filling out his jeans, the eyes holding a gentle hint of future vacancy, with a matching hollowness about the cheeks. So what then of her ankles thickening in coquettish reply, her backside swelling like summer cumulus, her waist waxing stout as her gums receded. All this still in paranoid millimetres. Far worse, the special insult the years reserved for certain women, as the corners of her mouth began that downward turn in pursuit of a look of constant reproach. Fair enough in a bewigged judge frowning at counsel from her throne. But in a lover?”

The turning point of Fiona’s mature career turns out to center around a case involving a minor, a 17-year-old Christian Scientist whose right to refuse a life-saving blood transfusion is affected by a law called the children act. She thinks, before she makes her decision, that the case is “either about a woman on the edge of a crack-up making a sentimental error of professional judgment, or it was about a boy delivered from or into the beliefs of his sect by the intimate intervention of the secular court.”

The case of the 17-year-old boy continues to affect Fiona as she goes through her daily life and work, as does her separation from Jack.

In her work life, her judgments are unquestioned:
“It was not usual in this line of work to be sending people to prison but all the same, she thought in idle moments that she could send down all those parties wanting, at the expense of their children, a younger wife, a richer or less boring husband, a different suburb, fresh sex, fresh love, a new world view, a nice new start before it was too late.”

In her home life, she can do nothing right:
“There had been rows, during which she discharged some bitter feelings. Twelve hours later those feelings were renewed as ardently as wedding vows, and nothing changed, the air was not ‘cleared.’ She remained betrayed. He spiced his apologies with old complaints that she had isolated him, that she was cold. He even said late one night that she was ‘no fun’ and has ‘lost the art of play.’ Of all his accusations, these bothered her most because she sensed their truth, but they did not diminish her anger.”

The boy turns 18, and he follows Fiona from London in order to talk to her. When she asks if his parents know he’s there, his reply is “I’m eighteen. I can be where I like.” Although childless herself, she knows the letter of the law is not enough in a case like this, so she insists he let them know he’s okay. Her judgment about the boy does not turn out as she hopes it will, though, as she is unable to look at the world from his point of view after seeing her initial judgment carried out.

In the end, she makes a good judgment about her personal life. She asks Jack “if he would still love her once she had told him the whole story. It was an impossible question, for he knew almost nothing yet. She suspected he would try to persuade her that her guilt was misplaced.” She knows that it is not, but she is going to try constructing a new view of herself that reconciles her work life with her home life, one that depends less on other peoples’ viewpoints on what she does and who she is.

It is a serious novel, and Fiona’s predicament makes me think of three lines from the Philip Larkin poem “Churchgoing”:
“A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.”
In a secular society, a judge is the one who is robed, and whose word sometimes becomes destiny.

Perhaps for me, just now sliding off the robes of vacation scheduler and decider-on-dinner and referee-between-siblings, the book actually did provide an undercurrent of the right kind of seriousness for a beach trip, the kind that works in your mind for a while until you start to notice it, perhaps when you first feel the tug of your serious work face pulling downward at the corners of your mouth, as perhaps it has been doing for quite a while.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2014 6:35 pm

    Usually I try to say nice things about the books you review, but gosh this sounds awful and dreary 😦 I guess I want a little (a lot?) of escapism in my books.

    • September 11, 2014 9:28 am

      It isn’t dreary at all. I like the reminder that a professional woman of a certain age actually has a responsibility to try to care a bit less about what others think of her.

  2. September 11, 2014 4:13 pm

    I actually thought it sounded fascinating. And I imagine Ian McEwan does it very well – he likes to get inside couples’ heads. I read a similar sort of account of ageing love in Helen Walsh’s book, The Lemon Grove, but it came from the perspective of a middle-aged woman in a passionate affair with a young man who felt guilty and ashamed about her husband. Alas, Mr Litlove is clearly going to do that ‘distinguished’ thing as he gets older, while I am just going to get old!

    • September 11, 2014 5:07 pm

      He does it very well, especially considering the whole thing is told from Fiona’s point of view. As I get older, I look increasingly less like the kind of person I think I am. This summer when I was volunteering as the only woman with two men at a Gay/Straight Alliance booth at the Knox County Fair, Walker said in passing that I am often a very staid-looking radical. I was the one who smiled and waved kind of obliviously whenever anyone passing said something rude.

  3. September 11, 2014 7:58 pm

    This sounds like a good one to snuggle up with in front of a fire this winter.

    • September 11, 2014 9:10 pm

      Yes–much better suited than a South Carolina beach!


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