Review: ‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan


I’m always keen to read work by Ian McEwan since he occupies a position in the British literary landscape to which I earnestly aspire. He is a nationally recognized and well-respected author of literary fiction and he writes contemporary stories based very much in the real world and involving real people. There is nothing in a book by Ian McEwan that is not utterly believable. And just because he deals with everyday life, that‘s not to say his work is mundane or pedestrian. Every one of his books carries a message or a moral and helps us get to grips with the human condition.

His latest work, The Children Act, is no exception and is, in fact, extremely topical. The premise is relatively straightforward: Fiona Maye, a High Court Judge, has to decide whether or not to interfere in the medical treatment of a (marginally) under-age boy. The hospital wants to give him a blood transfusion but his parents refuse it on the grounds of religious belief. Knowing that he will die without the treatment, the boy agrees with them – but has he been radicalised? Are these really his wishes or have they in some way been forced upon him?

As is immediately obvious, this raises a number of important issues. Firstly, it tests our understanding of faith. The religious sect in question is neither Church of England, Protestant nor Catholic, and so its doctrines are foreign to us. McEwan is careful to avoid the idea that it’s Islamic or else the analogy would be too pointed – but the implication is there, nevertheless. So, should we act in direct contradiction of someone else’s sincerely held religious beliefs purely because they don’t coincide with ours and we don’t understand them? Last week in my main blog, Writing Life, I highlighted the Charlie Hebdo affair and began to explore some of the issues surrounding multiculturalism – this is another case in point.

Secondly, one wonders whether we should interfere at all. Irrespective of religious faith, do we, or do we not, have the right to decide what’s best for us as individuals? And in particular, do we have the right to decline medical treatment even if we know we will die as a result? This is not the first time McEwan has touched on the subject. His 1998 Booker Prize winning novel, Amsterdam, revolves around a euthanasia pact.

But does the book answer these questions? I’m not entirely sure that it does. I’m not entirely sure that it could, since the problems that arise out of multiculturalism appear largely intractable and defy even the keenest of minds. And I’m not even sure that it’s the responsibility of novelists to solve them – this is a task for politicians, not writers.

Our job is to bring such things to public attention.

Having said that, the book is a joy to read. McEwan’ s prose is masterful and you soon realise that you’re in the hands of a true professional. It’s also something of a surprise. In the past I’ve accused him of being too wordy and often long-winded (I remember one passage from On Chesil Beach which went on for page after page, long after the original point had been made). Others have said the same. He’s clearly made a conscious effort to tighten up because there’s hardly a word wasted here – almost to the point where perhaps a few more were needed. Phrases have been clipped and sentences improperly formed for what appears to be the sake of brevity. I’ve often said that when it comes to good writing, less is usually more. But here, McEwan has taken that to an extreme.

It’s the same with the plot. I turned what was in fact the last page, expecting to read on, but the ending had been unexpectedly cut short. It seemed to me that Fiona’s journey was still incomplete – had she changed? Was the incident with the boy just that, an incident, another anecdote about another day in court? Or was it something fundamental? The same could be said of her relationship with her husband – was his proclaimed infidelity just a blip? Or would there be long-term consequences? I was left wondering.

The Children Act is a well-written and interesting, if ultimately unsatisfying, book.




Nick’s debut novel, Birds of the Nile, is published by Roundfire.

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The next edition of Book Talk goes out on BBC Radio York at 6.30pm on Monday 9th February where they’ll be talking about books that have inspired this year’s Oscar nominated films.

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