The Children Act by Ian McEwan


When we meet Fiona, a 59-year-old woman, she is in her nearly perfect flat preparing for the coming day on the bench, where she will deliver her decision about custody of a child. It's a complicated case as the father is in an ultra orthodox Jewish sect from which the mother has distanced herself. Fiona must decide whether the child will be with the mother and attend school and prepare for the possibility of a life outside the sect, or whether the father has custody and keeps the child within the strict and close-knit confines of the sect, preparing her only for life as a mother. 

Fiona's beloved husband appears in the room to request permission to have an affair — the first in all the years of their happy marriage. He points out she has withdrawn in recent months from their lovelife. She reacts strongly of course and he retreats to the bedroom. She thinks of the case which made her retreat into herself and it is recounted in great detail. Then she gets a call from the clerk to tell her about the case which will consume her in the coming days: a boy 3 months short of his majority is rejecting a life-saving blood transfusion on religious grounds. 

I found the detailed accounts of the cases she decided and the carefully crafted decisions comforting. While the stories were wrenching, the decisions she made imply that rational thinking can be brought to bear on any problem. She was angry at her husband for threatening their perfect lives; she had always been ambitious and had not been willing to take time from her work to have children. Just when she must confront her personal issues, she comes to know Adam, the boy in the blood transfusion case. Despite his dire condition, he has taken up the violin and writes poetry and represents joy and liveliness in the face of certain death. Her interactions with Adam create a crisis in her life and she must face the irrationality that exists in all of us.

A thoroughly satisfying book.

Ian McEwan, The Children Act, Nan A. Talese, 2014, 240 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library, on order at UVa, and available through Amazon.

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