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You Are What You Read: The Children Act

Kristina Wemyss on how McEwan's novel had the power to make her question her previous beliefs

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Image Credit: Vintage Publishing , 2015

A novel about a fifty-nine year old high-court judge struggling with an unfaithful husband, might not sound like a particularly relatable choice for someone of my age. However, McEwan delivers a fantastically intricate narrative, which allows the reader to immerse themselves in  the protagonist’s personal and private life, and feel the weight of the decisions that she must make regarding her own pride and the future of a young man’s life.

The Children Act centres around a legal debate over whether a young Jehovah’s Witness with leukaemia should be forced to have a blood transfusion that could save his life or be allowed to refuse treatment and risk death. Through this, McEwan places religion, atheism, marriage and love under scrutiny.

As an agnostic myself, it has certainly made me question the idea of blind faith, but also the mocking and dismissal of religion and the arrogant assumption that humans have the right to play God. Who are we or our legal system to dictate how others live their lives? McEwan shows that the forced destruction of religious values can be just as devastating as extreme religious beliefs themselves.

The thing that binds all the characters together is their vulnerability. All their flaws are laid out, exposed in plain and damning facts like a prosecution statement, for the reader to make their own judgement. Adam, the young Jehovah’s Witness, seems assured of himself. He is a confident seventeen-year-old who appears unfazed by the idea of dying for his faith and thinks that martyrdom awaits him.

But the extent of his belief is placed under a microscope; are these truly his own ideas, or is he really a terrified young boy who knows of nothing outside of his “uninterrupted monochrome” community? Ultimately, he is a chess piece in the courts, a symbol of his parents’ devout faith and an opportunity for atheist courts and doctors to assert their moral superiority.

Fiona is living in auto-mode, despite her job title and the huge decisions which she has the final say on,  she is unable to do anything except sit back and watch life and her dignity pass her by.  Fiona is hurt by her husband’s affairs with a younger woman. But she also feels guilty and inadequate as their love life stagnates with age and she becomes increasingly absorbed in her work. Also, her childlessness makes her feel that her life is “a flight from her proper destiny”; despite all her accomplishments, she feels like a biological failure.

The juxtaposition between her work and personal life is fascinating and a perfect example of McEwan’s complex characterisation- a key factor in his popularity as an author. While Fiona’s husband, Jack, seems to have the upper hand, as he has a younger woman lined up and Fiona to fall back on, he ultimately crawls back to her  having realised his mistake. However, it is too late as he has taken a wrecking ball to the foundations of their marriage and he returns to a version of his wife who is even more wrapped up in her work and unwilling to give him attention than before.

Though the novel is written in the third person, it seems to spring from Fiona’s own consciousness. McEwan cleverly structures every detail and thought around his protagonist; her knowledge of the law pervades the text, with a methodical approach towards the situations that she faces. In some sections, McEwan seems to swamp the text with descriptions of court cases, not allowing us to give any attention to the core characters themselves. This cleverly reflects Fiona’s own obsession with her work and refusal to acknowledge problems at home with her loveless marriage, lack of children and increasing age.

Aside from legal language, McEwan also uses musical terminology to punctuate the interactions between Fiona and her husband, giving an insight into her emotional state with harsh ‘staccatos’ and references to mournful musical laments. The whole book appears to be one huge crescendo building towards a climax, which comes in the form of a dramatic piano performance by Fiona, during which she receives some very important news. It is subtle insights like these, into her own passions, which build the complex characters that McEwan is famous for.

The theme of justice is apparent from the moment you lay eyes on the title, but the way that McEwan creates and explores a maze of innocence and blame is very thought provoking. The harmony of reason and enlightenment that exists in Fiona’s court makes her seem to be a goddess of sorts. However, McEwan reminds us that life continues beyond the hammer of the judge, and that for every decision there are real consequences. We question the hagiography that Fiona receives. And this begs the question- what gives a judge the right to completely change the course of an innocent person’s life?

The existential questions that this novel shamelessly hurls at the reader are what makes it so engaging. Are children shaped most by nature or nurture? At what point do they children become adults who can make their own decisions? Do adults always know better? Is it morally correct to overrule religious beliefs if an atheist-dominant society deems it to be so? You might not gain all the answers from this text, but it certainly serves as a thought- provoking piece.

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