As an avid Ian McEwan fan, I was keen to read The Children Act, published in 2014, and it is safe to say that this novel did not disappoint. What I find most striking about McEwan’s novels is that each of his books is utterly unique. Atonement explores love, war and innocence, The Child In Time describes a man’s emotional and psychological turmoil following the disappearance of his child, and Nutshell follows a murderous couple narrated by an unborn child. However The Children Act stands alone in McEwan’s collection of novels, as it presents a powerful moral dilemma in the context of law, religion and the autonomy of youth.
The novel revolves around Fiona Maye, a High Court judge. The Children Act commences with the beginning of a pivotal marital feud, as Fiona’s husband (Jack) seeks permission to have an affair due to their lack of intimacy, and eventually leaves. Following this, Fiona reflects on the relentless physical ageing of both husband and wife, and the toll this has taken on their marriage. In the midst of this debacle, Fiona is called to an emergency case. This exceptional case follows a young boy, Adam, who has leukaemia. Yet critically Adam is a Jehovah’s witness and is refusing a blood transfusion as it is against his beliefs. However, as Adam is a few months shy of 18, Fiona must ultimately decide whether she should override his wish in favour of the medical treatment. Fiona visits Adam in hospital and instantly forms a connection with him, as he reveals himself to be a profound and insightful young man. Fiona reaches her decision relatively quickly, however her ruling acts as the catalyst for events that will ultimately change both Fiona’s and Adam’s lives perpetually.
The Children Act presents a riveting exploration of religion, which is instantly heightened through the Biblical implication of Adam’s own name. McEwan explores the extent to which we should let religion saturate our life, and seemingly questions whether we should let religious teachings dictate life changing decisions. Fiona articulates this pressing issue as “She wondered at all the hours of his childhood and teenage years, of praying, hymns, sermons, and various constraints that she could never know about, at the tight and loving community that had sustained him until it had almost killed him” (162). While Fiona acknowledges the love religion has filled Adam’s life with, the sinister end of this passage almost suggests that Adam’s religion has indoctrinated him and forbidden him to have independent thought.
McEwan equally seems to be overwhelmingly interested in independence and agency. Firstly, The Children Act presents the moral question of Adam’s rights to autonomy as he is under the age of 18. Having witnessed Adam’s intelligent and articulate character the reader initially feels that he should have the right to decide his own fate, however the end of the novel complicates this argument. McEwan similarly explores independence within a religious institute. The novel seems to question how an individual can maintain independent thought in the midst of a passionately preached doctrine. Finally, the novel explores Fiona’s own independence within her marriage. Following her husband’s acclamation of his lack of sexual fulfilment, Fiona seemingly relishes the idea of being alone.
I would recommend The Children Act to someone who seeks a gripping and unique novel with a hint of romantic drama. I found the exploration of religion extremely pertinent, as religious controversy continues to be a major political and social issue across the globe. The relevance of this topic is expertly handled in this novel, as the reader is presented with both the views of Adam himself and Fiona who must decide between respecting his religious beliefs, or saving his life. The Children Act is ultimately another McEwan masterpiece which presents conflict: conflict of husband and wife, conflict of beliefs, and a shocking conflict of interest.
~ Hattie Hansford