The Children Act – Ian McEwan

[I wrote this journal in two sections. I didn’t read Chapters 4-5 until I’d finished writing about Chapters 1-3.]

26 November 2014
Chapters 1-3
This is one of those books by Ian McEwan where he imagines himself into the consciousness of a high-achieving north London professional, creates the mise-en-scene like a set designer with telling little details that pinpoint the protagonist’s class and tastes (same thing in this case), then kicks things off with a McGuffin. This is an ultimatum by Fiona Maye’s high-achieving, top level squash-playing academic husband – Perowne in Saturday is also a squash player, I remember – that he’s going to leave her unless things change around here. But she’s a high-achieving judge in the family court and her work is starting to get to her in ways it never used to. They haven’t had sex ‘for seven weeks and a day’, he tells her, and she thinks back to those poor conjoined twins whose dreadful case she heard at that time, and how she had to play God. Again.

God is at the centre of the moral conundrums that McEwan throws at poor Fiona. The three child welfare cases he has covered in some detail – against the background noise of the humdrum custody and property cases that otherwise fill her days – all involve her in making judgments that go against the religious beliefs of one or both parents. The first two are easy, and I can’t imagine any of McEwan’s fans disagreeing with her. Separating those conjoined twins will mean the inevitable death of one of them, not something the Catholic parents are happy about. Allowing the mother of an Orthodox Jewish girl to have her educated in a mixed school beyond the age of sixteen means going against the father’s wishes, but these are presented as so wrong it becomes a no-brainer.

The third is trickier, and has taken up a large section of the book. A bright, lively boy three months short of his eighteenth birthday needs a blood transfusion. He and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and are refusing the treatment. Unusually, Fiona goes to see him – there are things happening in her life that make her behave in unorthodox ways – and likes him. She comes to a decision and, in one of those judgments that McEwan is always complimentary about, finds enough legal precedent to justify it. God, in the view of both the boy and his parents, has made a decision. But in the secular society they are living in, God comes in the form of a middle-aged woman with her own agenda. She orders that the transfusion must go ahead.

What is this novel for, exactly? All the interest lies in the working though of the ethical arguments thrown up by these cases, as McEwan uses all his skills as a writer to put the reader in the shoes of this intelligent and thoughtful woman. I’d say that at least half of this novel has been taken up with chewing over the ethics of these hypothetical cases and how they might be dealt with in law. I can’t remember where I read recently that in these secular times, novelists have to take the place of philosophers and the clergy, and I’m sure McEwan takes this role seriously. But he’s a novelist, so he has to give us characters and a plot – and, as so often in his novels, that’s the problem. I don’t believe a word of it.

As ever in his North London Professional novels, we can tell that McEwan has done a lot of research because he wears it on his sleeve. Both sleeves. He name-drops judges we have sometimes heard of and cases and precedents we probably haven’t as they pop into Fiona’s mind or into the submissions offered by barristers. Cases we nearly recognise are presented in slightly modified versions, because our familiarity with the issues and causes celebres of recent times allows him to create a recognisable world. This, he urgently wants us to believe, is British society in the second decade of the 21st Century. Well, maybe. But I always wish in his serious novels that he’d stop trying so hard.

As for the plot and matters relating to it…. the novel is about the law, so we are invited to smile at the pastiche of the opening of the Dickens novel that debunks the legal system, Bleak House. (There’s constant rain as well, like the incessant drizzle that assails Lady Dedlock. I can’t see any particular point being made.) We’re in Fiona’s nice flat and, still in Chapter 1, we get her husband’s ultimatum. He’s pissed off with her for apparently having forgotten about the pleasant sex we later hear has always been a feature of their 30-odd years of marriage. She doesn’t like the fact that he’s threatening to go off with a woman half his age (and hers). Alone, she meditates on the ageing process – she’s nearly sixty – and, later, about why they just sort of drifted into not having children. It was never the right time, and when it was too late they considered adoption.

And in the high-profile cases she deals with, there’s always the phantom of motherhood hovering somewhere. It’s the dead conjoined twin who haunts her dreams, not the living one, and she relishes pointing out to the Orthodox father that he is relying on women like her – women, of course, who would educate their daughters to be like them – to present his case. As for the Jehovah’s Witness…. There’s a moment that seems to be deeply symbolic when he plays a tune on the violin that she recognises and asks to sing along to. He permits this and, when she has to leave, he tries to make her promise to visit again. What did I say earlier about this middle-aged woman with her own agenda?

More plot. Her husband has left before the end of Chapter 1, and she goes through two or three phases of shock and anger that she admits to herself are entirely predictable. By the time he returns 48 hours later, she’s had the locks changed and he’s having to wait on the landing outside the flat. She doesn’t stop him coming in, but she isn’t sleeping with him. She imagines the ‘months’ that it will take for the predictable stages of their reconciliation to unfold, and she isn’t looking forward to it. At the point I’ve reached, all she feels is disappointment that he didn’t stay away longer. ‘Nothing more than that. Disappointment.’

28 November
Chapters 4-5 – to the end
It doesn’t become any more believable. McEwan has a highly intelligent woman doing implausibly thoughtless or stupid things while the hapless reader has to stand by and watch. But, Milord – or My Lady – the balance of her mind was affected. Believe that if you want to. Seven weeks and a day before the novel opens, this High Court judge noted for the coolness and elegance of her judgments is suddenly so overcome by the human tragedy of a case that her faltering libido goes into a nosedive. It isn’t so much that she doesn’t feel like sex any more. From the conversation she has in Chapter 1 with Jack, her husband, she seems to have forgotten that that sex exists at all. In these later chapters we’ve had further details of their previous sexual relationship, especially in the ecstatic early days, ‘almost blacking out with the thrill of it,’ and… what? And we simply have to accept the situation McEwan offers at the beginning. Despite all appearances, despite her undiminished competence in every aspect of her professional and musical life – did I mention she’s an accomplished classical pianist? – she seems to be having some kind of breakdown. You’ve never seen a breakdown like this before? You have now.

Implausibly stupid things. She gets a needy, approval-seeking letter from Adam, the now recovered transfusion boy. His parents’ relief that he is alive without facing excommunication has made him summarily reject the faith, and she drafts several replies. But she doesn’t like the phoniness of the tone of her final draft, and doesn’t send it, or anything else. Weeks pass, and he writes again. She doesn’t send anything, again, not even an acknowledgement. More weeks pass, and in a rainstorm – the rain really does symbolise something in this novel – he turns up at her high-end judges’ lodgings at the edge of Newcastle. She is completely thrown by this, but tries to talk to him sensibly. She succeeds, and sends him away with money and a train ticket to stay with an aunt he mentioned. But when she goes to kiss him on the cheek, their lips meet. She lets the kiss last for some seconds before having her assistant put him in a taxi. Luckily, nobody witnessed the kiss and she doesn’t get into trouble.

McEwan makes such a big thing of her sense of relief that alarm bells ring. They ring louder some time later when Adam sends her one of his poems, full of transparent symbolism about the way she made him betray his faith. And there’s a reference to a kiss in it. She considers a reply, which she doesn’t send. I think that’s three strikes, Milady. Some weeks later she finds out he’s dead, having refused another transfusion, ostensibly on religious grounds. She sees it as suicide, and that it’s her fault.

But, reader, is it a breakdown she’s been having? Or a late flush of young love? Right from the start of the novel, McEwan has been messing with Fiona’s head so thoroughly that the latter seems more probable. Her anxiety, or whatever it is, manifests itself through her sexual relationship with Jack. But it’s somehow more complicated, or more muddled, than that. Her maternal-seeming feelings in those difficult court cases lead to a running thread during the middle chapters concerning her regrets about her childlessness. Her decision to visit Adam in hospital seems to spring from a need to offer the kind of parental support that his real parents have surrendered to the elders… until she sings the song. It feels like sleight of hand on McEwan’s part. The song is Yeats’s ‘Salley Gardens’, about sexual longing and regret, and it has an electrifying effect on both of them. This is the background to the letters and his visit, whose significance she never faces up to. She even pretends to herself that the kiss isn’t much, really.

Hah. She finds out about his death just before her annual recital, accompanying a colleague who is as good a tenor as she is a pianist. McEwan doesn’t tell us the news she’s just received, and she suppresses the knowledge for the duration of the recital. But for their encore, despite a prior agreement to perform something else, she strikes up with ‘The Salley Gardens’. They bring the house down, but she scurries out – into the rain, obviously – like Cinderella from the ball. Jack comes in later, expecting sex for the first time in months. (Things had been tending in that direction, and he’d been making good progress early in the evening.) But, after a suitable period of near-catatonia, she weeps like a girl in his arms.

Only after this does she begin to realise what’s been going on. Jack asks her if she was in love with Adam, and her reply deflects the question. Having given up his faith, he was looking for some sort of guru, she thinks. What he got from her, of course, this boy who was clearly searching for a new God to replace the one so recently rejected, was nothing. None of his supplications to her received any acknowledgement, and he stopped believing in her. Meanwhile she was so bound up with her own hectic emotions she hadn’t spared a thought for what was going on in the life of a vulnerable young man. How could she be so obtuse?

She couldn’t, of course, not really. So throughout these later chapters, as before, McEwan adds layer after layer of realistic detail, as though offering it as evidence of the realism of his characters and their psychology. None of it works for me. And nor does his name-dropping of, say, the engineers and architects – I counted three – responsible for the bridge, railway and station in Newcastle as Fiona’s train draws in, or the reference to Pevsner in relation to the judges’ lodgings. However much he might be able to name and pin down the highly cultured milieu of his main character – and I haven’t even mentioned the pitch-perfect choice he makes of songs to be included in her recital – it never makes her any more believable.

I was wondering some time ago what this novel is for. I’m beginning to think McEwan only writes novels because he feels he has to, because he isn’t known for anything else. Novels don’t interest him, it strikes me, half as much as the cultural, political and ethical concerns of the left-of-centre, middle class people like me who read his books. If you ignore his plots and characters – something I find myself wanting to do whenever I read his novels these days – you’re in exactly the same world as the editorial and feature pages of The Guardian and Observer. Worthy newspapers, and worthy concerns. But, in McEwan’s hands, not the stuff of fiction at all.

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