The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children ActThe Children Act by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perhaps it’s best I read The Children Act in the space of a day, curled on my sofa. Otherwise I might have been spied in my favorite café purring like a contented cat, stroked by Ian McEwan’s sublime prose.


Words adore Ian McEwan, submitting readily to his firm but empathetic hand. They are sleek and gorgeous dancers to his choreography; alone, the words are admirable, but under his direction they assume nuance and strength. His works never fail to take my breath away. It is a comfort to know, regardless of the story I am about to witness, that I will be treated with the utmost respect by an author who assumes I revere language and composition as much as he does. It is because of writers like Ian McEwan that I have come to cherish the art of writing.


But even the most skilled and erudite writing cannot save a flawed story. Fortunately, this author takes his craft as seriously as his art.


In the vein of Saturday, The Children Act imposes an ethical dilemma on a member of the élite caste of British society and places its protagonist in crisis. In this most recent of McEwan’s thirteen novels, Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in Britain’s Family Division, hears a case of a young Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia whose parents refuse to allow a critical medical procedure. His religion forbids blood transfusions and the hospital has appealed to the High Court to force the treatment on the dying patient. Time is running out—Fiona, or ‘My Lady’ as she is addressed in court, has only a few days to hear the case and render her decision before it is too late to save the young man’s life.


Complicating an already impossible situation is Adam, the patient. He is nearly the age of consent—just a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday—and his objection to the transfusion is as strong as his parents’. There is legal precedent to allowing an older minor to make life or death decisions about his care, and the judge must decide if Adam is fully aware of the consequences of his choice. His death will be agonizing, or in the unlikely event he lives, his future will be a half-life spent in blindness and compromised mental capacity. Standing against her is a sheltered faith of dubious theological framework, and the right to determine one’s own destiny.


The control and confidence with which Fiona Maye handles her cases belies the mess of her life at home. At the start of this slim novel, her husband Jack, a university professor, announces he would like to have an affair and hopes she’ll understand his need to assert his sexuality in the waning light of his life. Fiona and Jack have been married for thirty years and although they have no children, their life is enriched with the frequent presence of nieces and nephews.


McEwan brings to the page a paradox that fascinates me: how many can be in such supreme command of their professional lives, yet find themselves mired in disaster at home. But this is where The Children Act stumbles and strains for me. Jack offers as defense for his fling the fact that he and Fiona have not had sex for “seven weeks and one day,” a period during which Fiona was trying an exceptionally draining and emotional case. As she ruminates about their marriage, Fiona recalls an active and satisfying sex life.


As sensitive and starkly real a portrayal of new marriage as McEwan rendered in On Chesil Beach, I find myself disbelieving the mature marriage in The Children Act. I can’t determine if the author expects us to believe a man would pursue an affair after a brief dry season and that he would want his wife to accept to an open marriage, a marriage that had heretofore known great sex. But later, as Fiona and Jack find their way back to each other, the tiny, tender moments of frail solidarity seep in and mostly redeem the incredible bits.


The troubled marriage plays in the background. It is the case of Adam and his faith that allows us to enter Fiona’s intellect and to battle with our own ethical and moral demons. Fiona’s internalized anguish over her own childlessness adds poignancy to her strength on the bench of family court. She determines the fate of so many children, yet Fate has determined that she will have none of her own.


In this era of doorstop novels—those giant, bloated affairs that become the darlings of the literati (and of me, yes, I have loved many a 500-hundred-plus-pager in recent months!)—it is a gift to read a rich, complete, thoughtful novel that combines meticulous research with exciting imagination in a mere 221 pages. The Children Act isn’t perfect (and what a relief that it isn’t, right?). But it’s vital, full of emotion, and so beautifully written, it made me purr.


View all my reviews

Book Review: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Sweet ToothSweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The opening paragraph of Sweet Tooth reveals the story’s end, which is a tidy way of compelling you, dear reader, to focus on the important parts – the middle and such. You know it ends badly, so you can’t possibly be disappointed; therefore, don’t worry about it.

But then you remember that you are reading Ian McEwan, master of unreliable narrators and oft-tricksy endings, and you wonder – am I being told the truth of the ending as it is, or the truth as the narrator would have me see it? And suddenly you are on edge, tense, looking for clues. Oh, Ian, you clever, clever man.

The plot is playful: a young co-ed, Serene Frome (rhymes with Plume), flops a bit in her maths degree and flounders after graduating Cambridge in 1972. Although well-bred and well-read, Serena’s ambitions are limited. But she is recruited, by way of an affair with a retread professor, into the secretarial pool of MI5. Seeing her pliability, borne of boredom and upper-middle class ease, her superiors envelope her in an undercover operation, code-named “Sweet Tooth.” Sweet Tooth is a cultural op – its mission is to identify and promote British writers who demonstrate anti-Communist philosophies. The writers are led to believe a literary foundation is behind the generous financial support and their only responsibility is to write away, honing their brilliance. Serena’s assignment is to recruit a young writer and English professor, Tom Haley, into the scheme. It’s not such a difficult mission, as it’s hard to imagine any struggling writer turning down a pot of cash from a well-known foundation which has just stroked his ego until he is as content as a cat with a bowl of cream. But Serena manages to muck things up royally, by falling in love with her target.

Sweet Tooth isn’t really a Cold War cloaks and codes thriller, as much as its pretty and pretty vacant heroine would love it to be (she’s a simple girl who just wants to have fun. Or, if she can’t have that, she’d be happy curling up in her dreary bedsit with a novel – Jacqueline Susann is just as good, if not better than, Jane Austen, thank you very much). It’s a slowly unraveling set piece, chock full of deceptive aplomb, in which everything turns to custard with surreal glee.

Unfortunately, there are all sorts of draggy parts in the middle. But don’t you dare skim, because you’ll miss the clues that’ll catch you in a cross-double cross that I dare not spoil here. And lots of author self-indulgence, as McEwan weaves in snippets of his short stories and real life characters from his early career; it’s a satirical rewriting of the author’s own history. The short stories within the story are terrific and the spy agency-funded rise and hilariously ironic fall of a writer – based on a true story – is fascinating.

Hang out with the fact that Serena stops sounding like a young woman coming of age in the early 1970s and starts sounding the way a man would imagine a young woman would think and behave; McEwan is particularly adept at writing women and I couldn’t quite accept a failure here (Blue’s Clues!) File away as interesting asides, but let off the hook, the red herrings of the IRA and Russian double-agents and jilted MI5 bureaucrats. They won’t get you anywhere. And sad is the case of Tony Canning, one of the most interesting subplots – the one that could have turned this book from writer’s folly into legit thriller: his story dead-ends with nothing but a nosebleed to show for all the trouble.

I’m equivocating – I can’t quite commit to saying that I think Sweet Tooth is a great book – I found it a bit too smug to buy a theme of the power of literature (as some reviews have claimed) – there was too much stifled laughter and indulgent sweet (tooth) ness for something so grand. It also wasn’t that great of a thriller, which it doesn’t pretend to be, (but again, other reviews have found a John Le Carre note that I can’t carry). But it is terrifically entertaining – all plummy accents and witty repartee that make Americans swoon in equal measure for Downton Abbey and 007 – and McEwan’s fine, fine writing is irresistible.

And then there is that Absolutely Fabulous ending.

Enjoy Sweet Tooth. Seriously. Don’t read heaps into it, just enjoy the read.

View all my reviews