Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan



I’ll bet a lot of reviews about Ian McEwan novels start out like this but there is no getting away from it. Ian McEwan is polarising. 

Yes, there are readers who will either love his books or loathe them. 

A more common phenomenon, I think, is that there are readers out there who love some of his books and loathe others. I am certainly in that latter camp. Atonement took me many attempts and a long time to get into it but when I did I loved it. The same could be said for Enduring Love. Saturday and Solar, on the hand, I have never been able to finish, no matter how many times I have started them.

So, it was with great trepidation when I started reading Ian McEwan’s latest book, The Children Act. 

Read on for the review.




What it had going for it from my point of view was the subject matter.

The protagonist of this short novel is Family Court Judge Fiona Maye. Fiona is a woman who has made many sacrifices to reach what is now the pinnacle of her career as a well-respected Family Court Judge.

The reader is introduced to Fiona as she faces a crisis in both her professional and personal life.

Professionally, she is facing one of the most personally challenging matters of her career. Adam Henry is a spirited and intelligent 17 year old boy who suffers from Leukaemia. He is also of the Jehovah’s Witness faith. Without a blood transfusion Adam is sure to die and yet his parents are refusing to consent to the lifesaving treatment on the basis of their religion. Although Adam is not yet of an age at which he is considered at law to be mature enough to make such a decision, he supports that of his parents. The Hospital brings a case before the Family Court seeking authority to perform the blood transfusion and it falls on Fiona to decide what is in the best interests of young Adam.

In the meantime, Fiona’s marriage of 30 years is falling apart. The book opens with a personal scene in which Fiona’s academic husband is asking for her permission to conduct an extra-marital affair. He feels that there is widening rift between them that Fiona won’t accept or deal with and he thinks that the best way for them to deal with this rift and still maintain their marriage is for him to be honest about his desire for infidelity. Fiona, although willing to accept to a certain degree her culpability in this rift between them, is offended by his suggestion and her marriage seems on the brink of collapse.

I loved so many things about this book.

The story felt so real and authentic. I believe that this can largely be put down to the quality of the writing. Just thinking of the opening scene of the book I feel as though I can picture every inch of the room that they are sitting in. The chaise lounge, the piano, even the soft lushness of the carpet upon which they “pad”. McEwan crafts everything so beautifully with just words.

What also lends the story that air of authenticity and reality are the lengths that McEwan has obviously gone to research the family law, the family law courts and the roles of the various parties to the legal disputes that come before the courts. I am not a Judge by a long shot, but I am a solicitor and have worked in domestic family law and I am currently working as an international family lawyer.  

I have spent a lot of time in court rooms, sitting at the bar table in front of the Judge and making my own submissions and I could feel myself there again reading this book.

When I read Fiona going about her daily life I felt as though I was though I was having a glimpse of what goes on on the other side of the Bench. More specifically, I appreciated the way in which McEwan portrayed a Family Court Judge who finds herself in the shoes of those that she regularly passes judgement on. It is her professional role to be objective. She needs to be able to objectively view both sides of the family law dispute, apply the law and pass judgement, all the time keeping her personal views and opinions to herself.

Juxtaposed to this is her own failing marriage in which she is forgivably unable to be anything close to objective about. Fiona is able to recognise that professionally she would advise against and think poorly of certain actions that she herself takes in response to her husband’s request for fidelity.

Fiona is able to recognise that some of her husband’s criticisms or (if we are going to be kinder) observations of her recent behaviour may be true and that she may have some level of culpability in the rift that has formed in their marriage, she is still too angry to be able to really sit down and reflect on her marriage in any way that might be close to being considered objective.

In many ways, Fiona acts against her own self-interest and I think that in a way this is a theme of The Children Act.

Her husband too, acts against his own self-interest. He declares that he still loves Fiona and that he wants their relationship to work and in the same breath suggests that the only way forward is for him to conduct an affair with another woman, sanctioned by Fiona. He is able to justify this to himself of course but one can’t help but wonder at his naivety. On a slight side note, this one aspect of the story instigated some lively debate between my husband and I about fidelity inside marriages and whether or not he had the right approach in requesting permission to have an affair. Fiona and her husband hadn’t had sex for 7 weeks, which seems to be one of the driving forces behind her husband’s desire to commence a relationship with another woman.  7 weeks seemed a little too soon to me to be running off into the arms of another woman.

Even Adam, the young man who wishes to refuse the lifesaving blood transfusion has his own reasons for acting in a way that seems to totally against his self-interest. He doesn’t want to die but he think that it is the right to do according to God’s law. In this storyline, McEwan deals superbly with the moral, ethical and legal issues raised in this scenario. As a family lawyer I really found McEwan’s portrayal of legal intervention in these religious issues interesting. I also did my Honours Thesis on the rights of the child in relation to consent to medical treatment so from that point of view it was also really interesting to see how the fine line between personal autonomy and the law was dealt with in The Children Act.

Everything about this book seemed nuanced, from the characters to the various themes throughout the book and I can’t help but admire how deftly McEwan achieved all of this in such a short novel.  




6 / 8 stars
Really enjoyable and well written. I would recommend it.


I would love to know what you though of this book? Was there a particular story line that caught your attention over the other one?




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