Acts and advocates: Ian McEwan’s dazzling new novel

McEwan’s new novel, the work of a master in full flight, weaves together marital infidelity, vulnerable children and the limits of belief and conscience.

In The Children Act, one teenage character resists medical treatment on religious grounds. iStock
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Whether it be the neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, the protagonist of Saturday (2005) or the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard, the main player in Solar (2010), Ian McEwan has long enjoyed sketching eminent professionals. In The Children Act [;], named for the periodically revised piece of UK legislation designed to protect and facilitate the welfare of minors, he turns his gaze to the London-based High Court Judge Fiona Maye, a childless 59-year-old who is much respected for her staunch work in the field of child protection.

“Godly distance, devilish understanding, and still beautiful,” is how one distinguished colleague describes Maye, yet her personal life is in crisis. In a masterful first chapter, we find Fiona poring over her court papers and quietly medicating with a glass of Talisker, as those involved in child protection sometimes must. McEwan swiftly animates Maye’s life of privilege – a baby grand piano; a Bokhara rug – then flags up a more immediate issue that is troubling her. Jack, a professor of ancient history and Fiona’s husband for the past 35 years, has just made a devastating request. He wants Fiona to sanction his proposed affair with Melanie, a young woman “with a taste for the kind of stilettos that could wreck an oak floor”.

McEwan is great on how the erudition Maye deploys from a professional distance is all but impotent when it comes to protecting herself. Terrified of what else she might learn, Fiona avoids confronting Jack’s proposed dalliance and seems incapacitated by duty: “She should be striding into the bedroom, demanding to know more. But she felt shrunken to a geometrical point of anxious purpose. Her judgement must be ready for printing by tomorrow’s deadline, she must work.”

Like McEwan's novels Enduring Love and Atonement, The Children Act weaves knotty moral philosophy posers into a gripping story. Patently well-researched, but only seeking to inform about the judiciary and the world of child protection when its plot demands it, the book is tremendously thought-provoking.

As you’d expect, McEwan is quietly respectful of the good guys fighting the good fight, but the warts-and-all world he portrays lends his book extra credibility. There’s a memorable passage in which Fiona recalls a terrible miscarriage of justice instigated by one of her colleagues. “He had tried a murder case still awful to contemplate, and painful to remain silent about, as she must,” expands McEwan. Thus we begin to feel the weight of the various items of dark baggage Fiona Maye is ­porting.

Elsewhere, much of the book’s legal action is taken up with one ruling in particular. It’s while dealing with the fallout from her husband’s surprise pronouncement about wanting an affair that Fiona presides over the case of Adam Henry, a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who has leukaemia.

Though the boy’s doctor asserts that he requires an urgent blood-transfusion, both Adam and his parents are rejecting such an intervention on religious grounds. We immediately understand that it is because Fiona is at her most vulnerable that she elects for an unorthodox approach, visiting Adam in hospital in an attempt to gauge both the depth of his religious conviction and his ability to make an informed decision.

At his bedside, there is tenderness and tough love, but McEwan shows his class in a scene that could easily have become mawkish in less able hands. And when Fiona – clearly enjoying the chance to exercise her maternal instincts – makes a lasting impression upon Adam, it proves crucial to the remainder of the book and its brilliantly rendered denouement.

Through it all, McEwan’s prose is dazzling. Here he is, for example, on the conjoined twins Matthew and Mark, whose fate and singular circumstances are such that Matthew must lose his life in order to preserve that of his brother: “A molecular event [had] ballooned like an exploding universe, out onto the wider scale of human misery. No cruelty, nothing avenged, no ghost moving in mysterious ways. Merely a gene transcribed in error…”

There is no flab here, no paragraph whose sentences do not sing. The book's story and themes continue to resonate with you after you've put it back on the shelf. Given the proliferation of real-life child-protection stories that have made the news lately, one is tempted to add that The Children Act seems timely, but in truth its themes are so familiar, so universal, that it may always seem pertinently au courant. The bottom line is that it's another magnificent effort by McEwan, an important and meticulously crafted book that deserves to be read and reread.

James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.