Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

I was going to see the movie but wasn’t quite quick enough. Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci plus London – I always like London stories – seemed a winning combination. Then there was that nagging feeling I always get: You can’t watch the movie until you’ve read the book. And by the time I’d got hold of the book, the movie had moved on from our local cinema and that was that. But at least I still had the book.

And what a powerful read it is. Not that this was surprising – I’d read McEwan before (Atonement, Amsterdam, Sweet Tooth) and he’s a master craftsman. In a nutshell, The Children Act follows Fiona Maye, a judge who presides over family cases, many of them with complex moral issues at heart, and this causes problems with her marriage.

One case in particular, where she had to rule in favour of the separation of baby Siamese twins, leading to the death of one, but safeguarding the survival of the other, caused Fiona to draw away from her husband Jack. So at the start of the book, he is telling her he plans to have an affair unless they can somehow patch things up.ˇ

But Fiona is unable to talk to Jack, she has so much on her place, and his planned infidelity enrages her – surely he must have someone lined up already and this is infidelity in itself. When he packs a bag, it is easier for her to change the locks on the flat and then focus on her current case.

This problem involves a seventeen-year-old boy suffering from leukaemia and the only way doctors can save his life involves a blood transfusion. Brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness, his parents, church and the boy himself are all against this, and time is ticking – the hospital wanting to act the next day before it’s too late. So much pressure. In the end, Fiona visits the boy in hospital and finds a charming, intense young man with a lively mind. What to do?

The Children Act is so much more complex than a story about a judge with some difficult cases. It blends in Fiona’s relationship with Mark, their history together, their childlessness but fondness for the children of their siblings, there’s a lot about music too, and builds a story full of emotion and drama. McEwan tells the tale very much inside Fiona’s head without a lot of dialogue or the kind of film-like narration you get a lot of in novels these days. You can’t do this unless you have a fascinating character who is also engaging and in this case thoughtful and sensitive.

At only 200 pages, there is no reason not to read The Children Act before seeing the film. But Ian McEwan has written a novel that stays with you for days and gives you a lot to think about, making the movie a tough act to follow. Five out of five from me.


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