You can always count on Ian McEwan to bring on the controversy. This is the fourth of the prolific British novelist’s books we’ve read in my book club and it prompted a loud and lively discussion.
The main character in The Children Act is Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in London. She’s about to turn 60 when her husband, Jack, a professor, announces that he wants to have an affair (this is not a spoiler, really; the revelation comes pretty much on page one). She’s been married for thirty years and until the moment her husband tells her that he needs this because it is his “last shot” and he’s “yet to hear evidence of an afterlife” she’s been pretty smug about her life. While it is true that they don’t have children, they have had a good life together: enough money, a nice home, friendship and, Fiona admits ” she had always loved him.” To say that Jack’s confession throws Fiona for a loop is an understatement, but she does not intend to “manage the rest of her life alone.”
Into Fiona’s fractured world comes the Henry family. Adam Henry is seventeen and he and his family are refusing the blood transfusion that may save his life because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to their beliefs, “Mixing your own blood with the blood of an animal or another human being is pollution, contamination. It’s a rejection of the Creator’s wonderful gift. That’s why God specifically forbids it in Genesis and Leviticus and Acts.”
Fiona’s actually quite adept at sorting through these complicated and potentially incendiary cases, but even she is not quite sure what compels her to reserve judgment so she can visit Adam in the hospital. She calls the decision “a sentimental error,” but she goes anyway and discovers that seventeen – year – old Adam is , despite his illness, “beautiful.” It’ll be obvious to careful readers that Fiona is smitten. In fact, during the first few moments of their meeting she “caught nothing.” The visit that follows is charged – not sexually, really, although there is an element of that, too – with the kind of energy that happens when two people discover a shared passion. For Adam and Fiona it is music and poetry. Ultimately, Fiona’s decision sets Adam on a path that has profound consequences for them both.
I really liked The Children Act. McEwan is a smart writer and he’s adept at spinning a narrative that is tightly focused. Fiona isn’t a particularly likeable character, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to relate to her. This is a great book to get people talking.