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A Satan of a Certain Age

Review: Ian McEwan's 'The Children Act'

• October 10, 2014 5:00 am

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Partially as a consequence of being much admired, the novelist Ian McEwan has also been much criticized. The dominant trend of the complaints, aside from the general notion that he has been overpraised, is that he is too much a creature of his class: that the upper-middle-class, relatively powerful, relatively wealthy characters who populate his books (and, presumably, his life) are obnoxious in ways to which his narrative gaze is blind. It is said that they, and he, mistake their padded bourgeois concerns for proper objects of Serious Novels.

The most famous proponent of this case was John Banville, who in 2005 wrote this of McEwan’s Saturday in the New York Review of Books:

Something of the kind seems to have happened here. Saturday is a dismayingly bad book. The numerous set pieces—brain operations, squash game, the encounters with Baxter, etc.—are hinged together with the subtlety of a child’s Erector Set. The characters too, for all the nuzzling and cuddling and punching and manhandling in which they are made to indulge, drift in their separate spheres, together but never touching, like the dim stars of a lost galaxy. The politics of the book is banal, of the sort that is to be heard at any middle-class Saturday-night dinner party, before the talk moves on to property prices and recipes for fish stew. There are good things here, for instance the scene when Perowne visits his senile mother in an old-folks’ home, in which the writing is genuinely affecting in its simplicity and empathetic force. Overall, however, Saturday has the feel of a neoliberal polemic gone badly wrong; if Tony Blair—who makes a fleeting personal appearance in the book, oozing insincerity—were to appoint a committee to produce a "novel for our time," the result would surely be something like this.

That McEwan’s books continue to sell so well—as ‘quality lit’ goes, anyway—and are made into the occasional movie must only be further evidence of their banality for Banville and those of similar mind. Their success is in part due to McEwan’s technical dedication: his commitment to telling stories with well-polished traditional mechanisms of suspense and reversal (another mark against him, for this crowd). And, to be fair, their success is also in part due to the fact that he depicts the world in which many of his readers live, or wish they lived.

But the criticism misses something important, and something that is very much on display in McEwan’s latest effort, The Children Act. It is not quite right to describe McEwan or his protagonists as complacently unaware of their own blind spots. On the contrary, the principal theme of many of his books, and especially of this most recent one, is that the customs and deepest beliefs of McEwan’s characters are fragile, self-contradictory, and ultimately insufficient. McEwan is a creature of his class, but he is also a critic of it.

McEwan likes writing about successful professionals, and the latest entry into his troupe is Fiona, a senior judge in London’s family court system. Every day she and her colleagues marshal a parade of nasty divorces, custody disputes, and the occasional tricky ethical dilemma—such as the infant conjoined twin who must be sacrificed if his brother is to be saved, but whose religious parents won’t allow to be killed, preferring to allow God’s will to carry off both children.

In this and other difficult scenarios Fiona must dispassionately apply the law, seeking the best interest of the child or children and bringing to bear the full impartial weight of English common law. Except, she doesn’t—not really. Here she is, at the start of the novel, ruling in the case of the twins:

Quoting Lord Justice Ward, Fiona reminded all parties in the opening lines of her judgment, "This court is a court of law, not or morals, and our task has been to find, and our duty is then to apply, the relevant principles of law to the situation before us—a situation which is unique."

Such is her public pose. But the very next paragraph indicates the problem:

In this dire contest there was only one desirable or less undesirable outcome, but a lawful route to it was not easy. Under pressure of time, with a noisy world waiting, she found, in just under a week and thirteen thousand words, a plausible way. Or at least the Court of Appeal, working to an even harsher deadline on the day after she delivered her judgment, seemed to suggest she had.

Determining "one child saved better than two dead," Fiona orders the twins separated. But what is revealing is less the entirely defensible decision itself, but the way in which Fiona reached it: There was nothing impartial about the process at all. Her moral judgment about a "desirable outcome" came first, after which a "lawful route" had to be found for justification.

Though some hate mail trickles in to trouble her conscience, Fiona is widely praised for her decision, especially among legal insiders, who find it to be "elegant and correct." Later in the novel, at a dinner in a luxurious country hotel where the judiciary has put Fiona up as she goes on the legal circuit, the matter comes up again:

Caradoc Ball…said, "I hope you realize just how distinguished a judge this is that you’re talking to. I’m sure you remember the Siamese twins affair."

Everyone did, and as the plates were cleared and the boeuf en croûte and Château Latour distributed, they talked of and asked her questions about that famous case. She told them everything they wanted to know. Everyone had a view, but since it was the same view, they soon moved on…

Other guests at the dinner whom Fiona finds herself chatting with include a government functionary sent up to the same part of the country, "to persuade a group of farmers on the coast to join with some local environmental organizations and allow their pastureland to be overrun by seawater in order to return it to salt marshes." Despite the fact they will be compensated and that this approach is "by far the best and cheapest form of defense against coastal flooding," not to mention, "wonderful for wildlife, especially birds," the local coastal farmers are unaccountably resistant to the plan.

The insularity of Fiona’s class is not something that McEwan misses. It is his subject.

Such is the strength of the ethical consensus in Fiona’s world that when she confronts the inciting legal dilemma of the novel—whether or not to allow the 17-year-old son of Jehovah’s Witnesses to refuse a blood transfusion necessary for his leukemia treatment—her conclusion is as foregone as any in literature. It is only McEwan’s talent for suspense and Fiona’s talent for self-deception that make it seem, early in the novel, that Fiona might actually allow him to die for his faith.

Before Fiona issues her judgment, however, she makes the irregular decision to visit the young patient—the obviously-named Adam—in his London hospital room, to aid in her determination of his competence. Adam is precocious, witty, charming. Through Fiona’s perspective—she is at the peak of her career, in her late fifties—we see that Adam’s is

…a long thin face, ghoulishly pale, but beautiful, with crescents of bruised purple fading delicately to white under the eyes, and full lips that appeared purplish too in the intense light. The eyes themselves looked violet and were huge. There was a mole high on one cheek, as artificial looking as a painted beauty spot.

Oh my. Fiona ends up concluding that Adam’s "defining quality was innocence, a fresh and excitable innocence, a childlike openness that may have been something to do with the enclosed nature of the sect." He reads her some of his poetry, which is not bad for a 17-year-old’s. They debate the issue of his faith. Leaving behind all bounds of propriety, this senior and respected figure of the London bench sings for him as he plays an Irish air on his new violin—to the suppressed English shock of the social worker also in the room.

Issuing her judgment later that night in a courtroom packed with journalists, Fiona announces that Adam’s "life is more precious than his dignity"—as succinct a summation of the ethics of her class as one is likely to find anywhere. With that decision, the true action of the novel begins. As the months go on, Adam fixates on his memory of the riveting portion of an hour he spent in his hospital room with the elegant woman who saved his life. He turns 18, renounces his faith, fights with his father, leaves home. He writes Fiona letters, and starts following her in the streets. He says he wants to live with Fiona, wants her to be his guru.

Innocently, he believes that Fiona has it all figured out, and that she can share her wisdom with him. We, the reader, know better. Fiona’s marriage is collapsing. It is childless, and her husband, a classics professor, has already taken off for a spell with a twenty-something named Melanie. Fiona suspects that he may soon leave for good. In a none-too-subtle illustration of the metaphysical emptiness of Fiona’s world, the husband has taken up an interest in geology. By way of small talk over dinner, he tells his wife that

A hundred million years into the future…what evidence would a visiting extraterrestrial geologist find of our civilization? A few feet below the ground a think dark line in the rock would mark us off from all that had gone before. Condensed into that six-inch sooty layer would be our cities, vehicles, roads, bridges, weapons…A more detailed microscopic examination might reveal a preponderance of pollen from the monotonous grasslands we had made to feed a giant population of livestock. With luck, the geologist might find fossilized bones, even ours. But wild creatures…would barely make up a tenth of the weight of all the sheep and cows.

The stress of her troubled marriage and the creeping sense that her life, having signified nothing, is slipping away, causes Fiona to lapse and to entertain Adam’s obsessive fascination more than she might have only a few years earlier, despite her painful awareness that she has much less to share with him than he thinks—or, perhaps, that she has only too much to share with him, a knowledge of emptiness that he will inevitably find crushing. Adam tracks her down at the country hotel, and is found by the staff soaked with rain. There is a shocking indiscretion.

Adam is one of McEwan’s transgressives, characters—like Baxter in Saturday or Parry in Enduring Love—who burn like meteors through the stale atmospheres of his protagonists’ worlds, illuminating the contradictions and untapped possibilities of their complacent lives. Sometimes these characters are madmen or criminals, but as devices they are almost always arresting.

In this novel Adam’s fate is just as compelling as Fiona’s, and McEwan flexes his usual technical muscles as we follow them both to the end of what is really an update on the story of the Garden. McEwan’s usual technical shortcomings are also in evidence. For such a master of traditional plotting, he is much more likely to deal out an anticlimax rather than something emotionally satisfying, and sometimes betrays a weakness for gods springing out of machines. Here, his treatment of Fiona’s femininity lacks confidence, and gives the sense of a male writer trying hard not to overdo it.

The Children Act is not principally about a legal dilemma. It is about the quiet moral crisis of McEwan’s class. Like the best of his typically brief novels, it has something of the domestic and moral flavors of Tolstoy’s shorter work—The Death of Ivan Illyich or The Kreutzer Sonata.

But of course McEwan is not Tolstoy. No prophet, he has no easy solution of faith or mantic salvation to offer. He is an established and basically non-transgressive member of the comfortable world that he inhabits and depicts. His novels are subtle meteors, illuminating with flickering light the abyss into which his own friends stare with ever less innocence, trying to feel a sense of wonder, too often feeling only fear.

Published under: Book reviews