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At the same time, she is called on to try an urgent case: Adam, a beautiful seventeen-year-old boy, is refusing for religious reasons the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents echo his wishes. Time is running out. Should the secular court overrule sincerely expressed faith? In the course of reaching a decision, Fiona visits Adam in the hospital an encounter that stirs long-buried feelings in her and powerful new emotions in the boy. Her judgment has momentous consequences for them both."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-07-07
- Reviewer: Staff
The 1989 Children Act made a child’s welfare the top priority of English courts—easier said than done, given the complexities of modern life and the pervasiveness of human weakness, as Family Court Judge Fiona Maye discovers in McEwan’s 13th novel (after Sweet Tooth). Approaching 60, at the peak of her career, Fiona has a reputation for well-written, well-reasoned decisions. She is, in fact, more comfortable with cool judgment than her husband’s pleas for passion. While he pursues a 28-year-old statistician, Fiona focuses on casework, especially a hospital petition to overrule two Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions for Adam, their 17-year-old son who’s dying of leukemia. Adam agrees with their decision. Fiona visits Adam in the hospital, where she finds him writing poetry and studying violin. Childless Fiona shares a musical moment with the boy, then rules in the hospital’s favor. Adam’s ensuing rebellion against his parents, break with religion, and passionate devotion to Fiona culminate in a disturbing face-to-face encounter that calls into question what constitutes a child’s welfare and who best represents it. As in Atonement, what doesn’t happen has the power to destroy; as in Amsterdam, McEwan probes the dread beneath civilized society. In spare prose, he examines cases, people, and situations, to reveal anger, sorrow, shame, impulse, and yearning. He rejects religious dogma that lacks compassion, but scrutinizes secular morality as well. Readers may dispute his most pessimistic inferences, but few will deny McEwan his place among the best of Britain’s living novelists. (Sept.)
A life behind the gavel
Displaying the economical style of his novels Amsterdam and On Chesil Beach, in his 13th novel best-selling author Ian McEwan upends the life of a respected judge with two crises—one personal, one professional—to create a penetrating character study.
Fiona Maye prides herself on being the kind of jurist who “brought reasonableness to hopeless situations” in the Family Proceedings Court of London’s High Court. But what she isn’t prepared to confront on the verge of turning 60 is her husband Jack’s request for permission to engage in an affair with a woman young enough to be his daughter, his self-help remedy for the “slow decline of ardour” in their childless marriage.
With her personal life in turmoil, Fiona is assigned the case of Adam Henry, a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness suffering from leukemia who has declined, on religious grounds, the blood transfusion that may save his life. Beginning with Fiona’s visit to Adam’s hospital room, McEwan fashions a completely plausible relationship between these two characters, using it to explore the demands of faith and to portray a young man groping toward maturity.
Though there’s little inherent drama in the daily work of a judge, McEwan succeeds in bringing Fiona to life as she works with integrity and efficiency to decide, in another case, whether to permit the separation of Siamese twins, knowing that doing so will be a death sentence for one of them. The equally fateful choice she faces in weighing whether to order Adam’s transfusion, like much of her work as a judge of family disputes, inevitably is refracted through the lens of her knowledge that she will never have children of her own.
The novel’s other plot line—the intricate marital dance that ensues after Jack’s stunning announcement—is handled with the same assuredness. A scene in which McEwan describes the tension between husband and wife using the almost imperceptible movement of a coffee cup is a masterpiece of dramatic writing.
Despite its subject matter, The Children Act doesn’t simply capitalize on a controversial issue to build artificial suspense. Instead, the pleasures of this quiet novel flow from McEwan’s keen judgment of human character and his ability to translate it so deftly that through his characters we can see ourselves with new eyes.