The Children Act, by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese-Doubleday/Jonathan Cape), £16.99/$25.00
The Children Act has the structure of a classic Greek tragedy. The protagonist, Fiona Maye, is noble and good, a respected High Court judge who handles difficult cases with sensitivity. Circumstances bring about a change of fortune evoking painful emotions of pity and fear. Early on, as Fiona mulls over a tough decision about allocating parental rights, her husband confronts her out of the blue with his desire to have a passionate love affair. He loves her but feels he deserves a final experience of passion before slipping into old age. Fiona furiously refuses permission for his fling. At the same time, she receives a call from her clerk alerting her to an emergency case she must address as duty judge. A hospital seeks to give a life-saving blood transfusion to a teenaged cancer patient, against the wishes of the patient and his Jehovah’s Witness parents.
Fiona suppresses panic and rage over her husband’s betrayal by focusing on her court cases. Over the next two days, she studies briefs from the hospital and the Jehovah’s Witness parents. The dying boy is just months shy of his eighteenth birthday, so barely falls under the Children Act, which makes the child’s welfare the judge’s paramount concern. After listening to testimony in court, Fiona gives in to impulse and makes an impromptu visit to the boy’s hospital bed. In a charmed space that brackets the tumult of her marriage along with the imminent threat of his cancer, the two share thoughts on religion, life, poetry and art. He plays his violin for her, and she joins in to sing the words he doesn’t know – words from a Yeats poem about having once been young and foolish.
Despite being moved by the boy’s seriousness, Fiona directs the hospital to intervene because she feels his religious views are not independent and that he has a romanticised picture of death. Coming home after this fraught day, she finds her husband returned, chastened. She takes him back but banishes him to the guest room. McEwan again juxtaposes the two layers of Fiona’s life: her choice is to keep both the boy and the marriage alive.
But Fiona’s decision has profound effects. The young boy she has only briefly met fantasises about running away with her to become more broadly educated, and even follows her up to York where she is a visiting judge. Shocked but also touched by his fervour, she gives him an impulsive kiss and sends him back to his family. He writes her later but she does not respond. The results are dreadful. Fiona’s decisions have worked precisely against her judicial duty to protect this child’s welfare.
Does Fiona have a tragic frailty, or, to use the Greek word, hamartia? Her husband misses the passion they once had and complains that she no longer talks to him. Fiona is in inner turmoil with unaddressed emotions about bodies. She views her own aging body with some distaste and is vaguely sad about not having had children. She has nightmares about the rending of human flesh she partly caused when she decreed that two Siamese twins should be separated, knowing that one could not survive on his own. Her breakdown occurs – if it is not too dramatic to label it as such – when she hears of the boy’s sad fate just before playing piano at a serious amateur musical event. Through music she becomes able to express and realise her failures and omissions.
By pairing the dual dramas of Fiona’s unravelling marriage and judicial decision-making, McEwan spotlights hard issues about moral choice and its consequences – what we philosophers would call “moral luck”. The book is slim and on first reading seemed too schematic. On re-reading I would call it instead “compressed”. In classical tragedy the events transpired in one day; here, the arc of action is telescoped into a few months, still preserving emotional intensity. The author makes his heroine accomplished and admirable, but hints that her judicial discernment has been won at the cost of emotional deadening. As an impartial agent of the state, she must craft decisions based on reason, downplaying passions and religious sentiments. Has she become too impartial?
She cannot talk honestly with her husband, nor can she address the emotional surges stirred within her by the handsome poetry-writing boy. The boy may seem too much a cipher or a placeholder here. Alleged to be so remarkable, in fact he writes pretty silly poetry. But what matters is how Fiona sees him. In his figure become concentrated her lost maternal opportunities, judicial obligations, and youthful passions. The tragedy that ensues is not foreseeable, but she must take some responsibility for it. Although the prospects for her marriage look hopeful at the end, Fiona knows she has failed –as any human judge must – in administering perfect justice.