Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A marvelous novel of love and betrayal and impatience: Ian McEwan’s ‘The Children Act’

Guest Contributor

One of the joys in reading a good book is the many ways readers can relate to it. Take Ian McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act. In its essence, it is about a respected judge, Fiona Maye, in the Family Division of the English High Court who is facing difficult life and death decisions at work while her husband of twenty-three years threatens their marriage.

Some focus on the discussions of the law. Indeed the title of the book, and a recurring theme, comes from a 1989 English law, “The Children Act,” which provides that “when a court determines any question with
respect to…the upbringing of a child…the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” Then there’s Fiona’s commitment to the law: “She belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ.” And the way people try to use the courts to wreak revenge, get their way and as much money as possible: “And the money? The new coinage was half-truth and special pleading. Greedy husbands versus greedy wives, maneuvering like nations at the end of the war, grabbing from the ruins what spoils they could before the final withdrawal.”

“The new coinage was half-truth and special pleading. Greedy husbands versus greedy wives, maneuvering like nations at the end of the war...”

Others maintain it is about defending secularism and atheism against the oppression of religion. And here, too, there is plenty of support in this slim book: Divorcing Jewish parents arguing about how Orthodox their child’s upbringing must be; Catholic parents who will allow both conjoined twins to die when one can be saved because it is God’s will; a young man, just three months shy of the age of consent, who wishes to martyr himself for his Jehovah’s Witness faith; the relief of his parents when he is prevented from doing so.

But to me, it is a book about love and betrayal and impatience: Fiona and Jack Maye’s deep, romantic love for each other. Henry Adams’ love of God and the Jehovah’s Witness community to which he belongs. The misplaced, innocent love, almost worship, Adams has for Fiona after she declares in her judgement: “He must be protected from religion and himself…In my judgment his life is more precious than his dignity.” Fiona’s betrayal of Jack, a sin of omission, denying him sex, but more critical in her withdrawal into work after a particularly hard decision. Jack’s betrayal of Fiona, a sin of commission, as he seeks the bed of another. Adams’ betrayal of his faith, a sin only in his eyes. Fiona’s betrayal of Henry, a sin of omission, refusing the role of savior and thus denying him the mentorship he craves and mistakes for love. Jack’s impatience that ‘seven weeks and a day’ is too long and then his many months of patience for healing to begin. Jack’s impatience for the life promised by Fiona that leads to him back to his faith.

McEwan explores these themes through Fiona’s eyes. It is her story and hers alone but the narrator keeps us at a distance, as I am sure Fiona would wish, even insist, to be the case. We never hear Fiona’s thoughts; we are only told of them. We feel her grief and guilt bleed into anguish and shame but are detached from her, as befitting a woman who not so much feels her emotions as notes them, until the end when she can no longer contain them.

We learn of her emotions through inner dialogues woven with memories, speculation of a bleak future, musing about the current state of the world, and actions: eating a sandwich, walking to work or back home, looking at her husband’s toenails. Her thoughts are often framed by cases or music. An accomplished musician, she sings while Henry plays his violin; she plays Bach’s second partita in her head to the accompaniment of traffic din and an “unhealthy long” list of the gifts she had given her husband over the years.

For an upcoming decision she lays out the meaning of welfare, the standard by which she must decide all cases involving children. Then:

She listed some relevant ingredients, goals towards which a child might grow. Economic and moral freedom, virtue, compassion and altruism, satisfying work through engagement with demanding tasks, a flourishing network of personal relationships, earning the esteem of others, pursuing larger meanings to one’s existence, and having at the center of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love.

Yes, by this last essential she herself was failing. The Scotch and water in a tumbler at her side was untouched; the light of its urinous yellow, its intrusive corky smell, now repelled her. She should be angrier, she should be talking to an old friend – she had several – she should be striding into the bedroom, demanding to know more. But she felt shrunken to a geometrical point of anxious purpose. Her judgment must be ready for printing by tomorrow’s deadline, she must work.

McEwan told Robert McCrum of The Guardian that he planned to write novellas in his 70’s. “I love the idea of sitting down to read something in three hours – about the length of an opera, or a long movie, or a play where all of its structure can be held in the mind,” he said. “A novella is a great length, and it’s a demanding genre in which things have to be settled quickly.”

Actually, he had planned for The Children Act to be a novella. But whatever the length of his next book, I look forward to reading it. As Kate Kellaway writes in The Guardian: “As one begins an Ian McEwan novel – this is his 13th – one feels an immediate pleasure in returning to prose of uncommon clarity, unshowiness and control. I was going to add that it’s marvelous to feel you are in a safe pair of hands – only safe is something McEwan has never been.”

Ian McEwan won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his first collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites, the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and the Prix Femina Etranger (1993) for The Child in Time, and Germany’s Shakespeare Prize in 1999. He has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction several times, winning for Amsterdam in 1998. His novel Atonement received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002) and National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award (2003), among others. In 2006, he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Saturday.

Carol Phillips has short stories in the Red Clay Review and County Lines: A Literary Journal, and poems in Haiku Journal. She is working on a collection of short stories while completing a memoir about her mild traumatic brain injury. A member of the NC Writers’ Network since 2006, she enjoys the literary and art world of Chatham County.

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