The Children Act

The Children Act

3.6 36
by Ian McEwan

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A brilliant, emotionally wrenching new novel from the author of Atonement and Amsterdam.
Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in London presiding over cases in family court. She is fiercely intelligent, well respected, and deeply immersed in the nuances of her particular field of law. Often the outcome of a case seems simple from…  See more details below


A brilliant, emotionally wrenching new novel from the author of Atonement and Amsterdam.
Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in London presiding over cases in family court. She is fiercely intelligent, well respected, and deeply immersed in the nuances of her particular field of law. Often the outcome of a case seems simple from the outside, the course of action to ensure a child's welfare obvious. But the law requires more rigor than mere pragmatism, and Fiona is expert in considering the sensitivities of culture and religion when handing down her verdicts.
But Fiona's professional success belies domestic strife. Her husband, Jack, asks her to consider an open marriage and, after an argument, moves out of their house. His departure leaves her adrift, wondering whether it was not love she had lost so much as a modern form of respectability; whether it was not contempt and ostracism she really fears. She decides to throw herself into her work, especially a complex case involving a seventeen-year-old boy whose parents will not permit a lifesaving blood transfusion because it conflicts with their beliefs as Jehovah's Witnesses. But Jack doesn't leave her thoughts, and the pressure to resolve the case--as well as her crumbling marriage--tests Fiona in ways that will keep readers thoroughly enthralled until the last stunning page.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Obsession is a familiar subject for McEwan, most memorably explored in his 1997 Enduring Love. This time the theme is a touchstone in a novel exploring a man's fixation on having an open marriage, a boy's fascination with the judge who will decide his fate, and a couple's determination to follow the strictures of their religion no matter the cost. The judge, Fiona Maye, must decide whether the teenage boy, a devout Jehovah's Witness, can be forced by the court to undergo the blood transfusion that is necessary to save his life. Clouding Maye's mind is turmoil at home: her husband is calmly insisting upon changing the boundaries of their relationship, a story line that will remind readers of the excruciating tiptoeing-around-each-other executed in the author's On Chesil Beach. In the end, this nuanced work explores compelling ideas but is not as memorable as McEwan's best. It may find a wider audience than some of his works, though, as its setting is contemporary and its major plotline—religious exemptions to laws—topical. VERDICT Purchase where McEwan, literary fiction, and explorations of social dilemmas are popular. [See Prepub Alert, 5/19/14.]—Henrietta Verma, Library Journal

You'd be hard put to find a better choice for reading groups than Ian McEwan's The Children Act. This book has so much going for it, on so many levels: moral, emotional, literary. It's a return to form after the less satisfying Solar and Sweet Tooth, and although not as ambitious as his remarkable historical novel, Atonement, it is easily his best since Saturday.

Like Saturday, The Children Act is a compact, contemporary narrative that focuses intimately on a protagonist's professional and personal life as she bumps up against various moral and personal crises. Where Saturday's propulsive, explosive plot convincingly took us deep inside the life and thoughts of a male neurosurgeon under pressure, The Children Act just as persuasively zeroes in on a fifty-nine-year-old female High Court Judge in London. Fiona Maye presides over cases of divorce, custody, and child welfare in the Family Division with impressive aplomb, until her own generally solid marriage hits an unexpected but all-too-common snag. The somewhat awkward title — at least to American ears — comes from a 1989 British law that deems a child's welfare "the court's paramount consideration" in cases that involve them.

The Children Act opens on a rainy June night when Fiona Maye's devoted husband of thirty-five years — a professor of ancient history — announces his intent to seize the day and swing for a last passionate fling with a much younger colleague. This is not, he assures his wife, because he doesn't love her any more. Quite the contrary. But at fifty-nine he feels it's his "last shot." McEwan captures her shock, dismay, helplessness, and outrage perfectly in this flailing rebuttal: "Fifty-nine? Jack, you're sixty! It's pathetic, it's banal."

Although in her work as a judge Fiona "believed she brought reasonableness to hopeless situations," she flies off the handle and issues an ultimatum, the sort of "self-harming move, without premeditation" she instantly regrets, though not entirely. The couple's rift widens quickly as Jack packs a bag and Fiona has the locks changed, even though she knows it's a "ridiculous transgression."

Fiona finds blessed distraction in her work: "No denying the relief of being delivered onto the neutral ground, the treeless heath, of other people's problems," McEwan writes with elegant precision. But troublesome thoughts intrude even at work. Was Jack's dissatisfaction, like her childlessness, a byproduct of her devotion to her all-consuming career? Mortified at the public humiliation of his infidelity, she chooses not to confide in even her closest friends. (Although we're assured she has friends, we're offered no evidence of them.)

As Fiona tries to trace the possible source of Jack's sense of neglect, McEwan walks us through several of her past cases, and they are indeed absorbing. The careful, clear-eyed, tidy reasoning she brings to bear on gnarly dilemmas at times channels Alexander McCall Smith's fictional moral philosopher and sleuth Isabel Dalhousie. But as Fiona reminds both parties in a particularly difficult case, "This court is a court of law, not of 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." The heavily publicized, controversial case involved the separation of conjoined twins, which would surely kill one while saving the other, whereas both would die if they were left as is. Her judgment invokes the "doctrine of necessity," which essentially makes it "permissible to break the criminal law to prevent a greater evil." Although "elegant and correct," the decision still pains her. Moreover, Fiona realizes in hindsight that among the things her absorption in the case caused her to lose sight of were Jack's needs, sexual and otherwise.

On the very day Fiona calls in the locksmith against her own better legal judgment (with the pride-salvaging goal of denying Jack "the luxury of two addresses"), a particularly thorny emergency case lands on her docket. The question at stake is the right of a not- quite-eighteen-year-old to refuse lifesaving blood transfusions. Three months shy of the age of self-determination, Adam Henry, the son of devout Jehovah's Witnesses, is dying of a highly treatable form of leukemia. Fiona recognizes that this is no simple case of judge-knows-best: "To treat an adult against his will is to commit the criminal offense of assault." But after hearing both sides of the case, she makes the unconventional decision to visit the boy in the hospital in order to determine whether his decision is an informed one. Are his views his own or those of his parents? Does he grasp how painful his death will be and understand the possibility of brain damage or blindness should he survive?

McEwan brilliantly tracks how Fiona's marital rift subtly unmoors her, opening up an alarming new "emotional tone? A blend of desolation and outrage. Or longing and fury" that she finds bewildering. This new emotionality leads to her "unorthodox excursion" to the hospital, which she acknowledges is possibly "a sentimental error of professional judgment." We see another side of this efficient, correct, almost prim woman whom her husband says has "lost the art of play" during what turns out to be an extraordinary encounter with bedridden Adam — a remarkable, intense, poetic young man with a romantic view of death. Their tête-à-tête is a high point of the novel.

The first time I read this book, I felt twinges of impatience at the way McEwan withheld Fiona's court rulings or updates about Adam in its latter half. His deliberate pacing made more sense on second reading — forcing the reader to more fully inhabit Fiona's point of view even as she moves on from Adam's case to other pressing issues. McEwan deftly plays Fiona's power in court against her powerlessness over her own emotions. In the throes of strong feelings, he reminds us, we tend to become impulsive, irrational, erratic — to act like children.

Though its length is a modest 221 pages, The Children Act is rich with issues that provoke thought and conversation: the nature of devotion (both religious and romantic), legality versus morality, the social aspects of welfare and well-being, the boundary between professional and personal responsibilities, and the marital tug-of-war between what one partner views as "brazen" behavior and the other as an "overblown sense of injury." Readers will want to discuss Fiona's various decisions, both in court and in her reactions to both Jack and young Adam, as well as the protracted, delicate thaw that follows a domestic freeze. But most of all, they'll want to savor McEwan's ability to pack so much into this tightly composed, ultimately moving story.

For further reading, as mentioned above, McEwan's Saturday and any of Alexander McCall Smith's charming Isabel Dalhousie novels (but particularly the first, The Sunday Philosophy Club) provide interesting pairings and counterpoints. Julian Barnes's Arthur and George, about an early-twentieth-century miscarriage of justice, offers a far less sanguine view of the British legal system.

McEwan is relatively rare among writers for so convincingly capturing the texture, mind-set, and daily rounds of non-academic, non-artistic professions in fiction. John Updike's car dealer, Rabbit Angstrom, and T. C. Boyle's biographical novels about American megalomaniacs such as John Harvey Kellogg and Alfred Kinsey also jump to mind. And of course there are plenty of novels about soldiers and bond traders. But neurosurgeons and judges? Both professions involve considerable training, clear-cut rules, moral boundaries, skills, smarts, and artistry. Could psychoanalysts, perchance, be next?

Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

Reviewer: Heller McAlpin

Publishers Weekly
★ 07/07/2014
The 1989 Children Act made a child’s welfare the top priority of English courts—easier said than done, given the complexities of modern life and the pervasiveness of human weakness, as Family Court Judge Fiona Maye discovers in McEwan’s 13th novel (after Sweet Tooth). Approaching 60, at the peak of her career, Fiona has a reputation for well-written, well-reasoned decisions. She is, in fact, more comfortable with cool judgment than her husband’s pleas for passion. While he pursues a 28-year-old statistician, Fiona focuses on casework, especially a hospital petition to overrule two Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions for Adam, their 17-year-old son who’s dying of leukemia. Adam agrees with their decision. Fiona visits Adam in the hospital, where she finds him writing poetry and studying violin. Childless Fiona shares a musical moment with the boy, then rules in the hospital’s favor. Adam’s ensuing rebellion against his parents, break with religion, and passionate devotion to Fiona culminate in a disturbing face-to-face encounter that calls into question what constitutes a child’s welfare and who best represents it. As in Atonement, what doesn’t happen has the power to destroy; as in Amsterdam, McEwan probes the dread beneath civilized society. In spare prose, he examines cases, people, and situations, to reveal anger, sorrow, shame, impulse, and yearning. He rejects religious dogma that lacks compassion, but scrutinizes secular morality as well. Readers may dispute his most pessimistic inferences, but few will deny McEwan his place among the best of Britain’s living novelists. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“Fantastically pleasurable. . . . Anything we want a novelist to do, he can do. . . . Unsurpassable.” —Chicago Tribune

“A svelte novel as crisp and spotless as a priest’s collar. . . . Another notable volume from one of the finest writers alive.” —The Washington Post

“Masterful. . . . Begins with the briskness of a legal brief written by a brilliant mind, and concludes with a gracefulness found in the work of few other writers.” —Meg Wolitzer, NPR
“Powerful. . . . Convincingly presents a complex woman in all her nuances. . . . A paragon becomes all too human in this aching tale.” —New York Daily News

“The first thing to do about Ian McEwan is stipulate his mastery. Anything we want a novelist to do, he can do, has done. His books are fantastically pleasurable. Their plots click forward, the characters lifted into real being by his gliding, edgeless, observant, devastating prose—his faultless prose. . . . Every novelistic mode is at his command, from the dark fabulism of The Child in Time to the vibrant sweep of Atonement to the modest but beautiful realism of his more recent work, On Chesil Beach, Saturday, Solar.” —Chicago Tribune

 “Highly subtle and page-turningly dramatic. . . . Only a master could manage, in barely over 200 pages, to engage so many ideas, leaving nothing neatly answered.” —The Boston Globe

“It’s a joy to welcome The Children Act. . . . [The novel’s] sense of life-and-death urgency never wavers. . . . Profound. . . . You would have to go back to Saturday or Atonement to find scenes of equivalent intensity and emotional investment.” The Wall Street Journal

“McEwan here crafts a taut morality tale in crystalline sentences.” O, The Oprah Magazine

“A quietly exhilarating book. . . . Reveals an uncanny genius for plucking a resonant subject from the pages of lifestyle journalism and teasing it out into full scenes and then pressing them hard for their larger, enduring meanings.” —Los Angeles Times

 “Powerful. . . . Heartbreaking and profound. . . . Skillfully juxtaposes the dilemmas of ordinary life and tabloid-ready controversy.” People

“Smart and elegant. . . . Reminds us just how messy life can be and how the justice system, despite the best of intentions and the best of minds, doesn’t always deliver justice.” USA Today

“A finely written, engaging read. . . . Poignant, challenging, and lyrical.” —The Huffington Post

“Haunting. . . . [A] brief but substantial addition to the author’s oeuvre.” Entertainment Weekly, A-

“One of the most extraordinary, powerful, moving reading experiences of my life. . . . An utterly remarkable novel, delicately balanced, perfectly crafted, beautifully written.” —Alberto Manguel, author of A History of Reading

“Captivating. . . . Achingly romantic. . . . Entertain[s] some messy dualities: the limits of the law and the expansiveness of humanity, youth and age, guilt and innocence, the confines of religion and the boundlessness of free thought.” —The Houston Chronicle

“Fascinatingly complex and finally heartbreaking. . . . A quite beautiful work of fiction.” —The Times (London)
“Masterly. . . . As one begins an Ian McEwan novel—this is his 13th—one feels an immediate pleasure in returning to prose of uncommon clarity, unshowiness and control. . . . The best novel he has written since On Chesil Beach.” —The Guardian (London)

“As ever, McEwan achieves the rich, fine-grained realistic texture that makes his novels, sentence by sentence, a pleasure to read.” —The London Review of Books

“Swift and compelling, asking to be read in a single sitting. . . . So skillfully composed and fluently performed, it’s a pleasure from start to finish, one not to be interrupted.’ —Evening Standard (London)

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-07-23
In the late summer of 2012, a British judge faces a complex case while dealing with her husband's infidelity in this thoughtful, well-wrought novel. Fiona Maye, at 59, has just learned of an awful crack in her marriage when she must rule on the opposing medical and religious interests surrounding a 17-year-old boy who will likely die without blood transfusions. The cancer patient, weeks shy of the age when he could speak for himself, has embraced his parents' deep faith as Jehovah's Witnesses and their abhorrence of letting what the Bible deems a pollutant enter his body. The scenes before the bench and at the boy's hospital bedside are taut and intelligent, like the best courtroom dramas. The ruling produces two intriguing twists that, among other things, suggest a telling allusion to James Joyce's 17-year-old Michael Furey in "The Dead." Meanwhile, McEwan (Sweet Tooth, 2012, etc.), in a rich character study that begs for a James Ivory film, shows Fiona reckoning with the doubt, depression and temporary triumphs of the betrayed—like an almost Elizabethan digression on changing the locks of their flat—not to mention guilt at stressing over her career and forgoing children. As Fiona thinks of a case: "All this sorrow had common themes, there was a human sameness to it, but it continued to fascinate her." Also running through the book is a musical theme, literal and verbal, in which Fiona escapes the legal world and "the subdued drama of her half-life with Jack" to play solo and in duets. McEwan, always a smart, engaging writer, here takes more than one familiar situation and creates at every turn something new and emotionally rewarding in a way he hasn't done so well since On Chesil Beach (2007).

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London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather. Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, at home on Sunday evening, supine on a chaise longue, staring past her stockinged feet toward the end of the room, toward a partial view of recessed bookshelves by the fireplace and, to one side, by a tall window, a tiny Renoir lithograph of a bather, bought by her thirty years ago for fifty pounds. Probably a fake. Below it, centered on a round walnut table, a blue vase. No memory of how she came by it. Nor when she last put flowers in it. The fireplace not lit in a year. Blackened raindrops falling irregularly into the grate with a ticking sound against balled-up yellowing newsprint. A Bokhara rug spread on wide polished floorboards. Looming at the edge of vision, a baby grand piano bearing silver-framed family photos on its deep black shine. On the floor by the chaise longue, within her reach, the draft of a judgment. And Fiona was on her back, wishing all this stuff at the bottom of the sea.

In her hand was her second Scotch and water. She was feeling shaky, still recovering from a bad moment with her husband. She rarely drank, but the Talisker and tap water was a balm, and she thought she might cross the room to the sideboard for a third. Less Scotch, more water, for she was in court tomorrow and she was duty judge now, available for any sudden demand, even as she lay recuperating. He had made a shocking declaration and placed an impossible burden on her. For the first time in years, she had actually shouted, and some faint echo still resounded in her ears. "You idiot! You fucking idiot!" She had not sworn out loud since her carefree teenage visits to Newcastle, though a potent word sometimes intruded on her thoughts when she heard self-serving evidence or an irrelevant point of law.

And then, not long after that, wheezy with outrage, she had said loudly, at least twice, "How dare you!"

It was hardly a question, but he answered it calmly. "I need it. I'm fifty-nine. This is my last shot. I've yet to hear evidence for an afterlife."

A pretentious remark, and she had been lost for a reply. She simply stared at him, and perhaps her mouth was open. In the spirit of the staircase, she had a response now, on the chaise longue. "Fifty-nine? Jack, you're sixty! It's pathetic, it's banal."

What she had actually said, lamely, was, "This is too ridiculous."

"Fiona, when did we last make love?"

When did they? He had asked this before, in moods plaintive to querulous. But the crowded recent past can be difficult to recall. The Family Division teemed with strange differences, special pleading, intimate half-truths, exotic accusation. And as in all branches of law, fine-grained particularities of circumstance needed to be assimilated at speed. Last week, she heard final submissions from divorcing Jewish parents, unequally Orthodox, disputing their daughters' education. The draft of her completed judgment was on the floor beside her. Tomorrow, coming before her again would be a despairing Englishwoman, gaunt, pale, highly educated, mother of a five-year-old girl, convinced, despite assurances to the court to the contrary, that her daughter was about to be removed from the jurisdiction by the father, a Moroccan businessman and strict Muslim, to a new life in Rabat, where he intended to settle. Otherwise, routine wrangles over residence of children, over houses, pensions, earnings, inheritance. It was the larger estates that came to the High Court. Wealth mostly failed to bring extended happiness. Parents soon learned the new vocabulary and patient procedures of the law, and were dazed to find themselves in vicious combat with the one they once loved. And waiting offstage, boys and girls first-named in the court documents, troubled little Bens and Sarahs, huddling together while the gods above them fought to the last, from the Family Proceedings Court, to the High Court, to the Court of Appeal.

All this sorrow had common themes, there was a human sameness to it, but it continued to fascinate her. She believed she brought reasonableness to hopeless situations. On the whole, she believed in the provisions of family law. In her optimistic moments she took it as a significant marker in civilization's progress to fix in the statutes the child's needs above its parents'. Her days were full, and in the evenings recently, various dinners, something at Middle Temple for a retiring colleague, a concert at Kings Place (Schubert, Scriabin), and taxis, Tube trains, dry-cleaning to collect, a letter to draft about a special school for the cleaning lady's autistic son, and finally sleep. Where was the sex? At that moment, she couldn't recall.

"I don't keep a record."

He spread his hands, resting his case.

She had watched as he crossed the room and poured himself a measure of Scotch, the Talisker she was drinking now. Lately, he was looking taller, easier in his movements. While his back was turned to her she had a cold premonition of rejection, of the humiliation of being left for a young woman, of being left behind, useless and alone. She wondered if she should simply go along with anything he wanted, then rejected the thought.

He had come back toward her with his glass. He wasn't offering her a Sancerre the way he usually did around this time.

"What do you want, Jack?"

"I'm going to have this affair."

"You want a divorce."

"No. I want everything the same. No deception."

"I don't understand."

"Yes you do. Didn't you once tell me that couples in long marriages aspire to the condition of siblings? We've arrived, Fiona. I've become your brother. It's cozy and sweet and I love you, but before I drop dead, I want one big passionate affair."

Mistaking her amazed gasp for laughter, for mockery perhaps, he said roughly, "Ecstasy, almost blacking out with the thrill of it. Remember that? I want one last go, even if you don't. Or perhaps you do."

She stared at him in disbelief.

"There it is, then."

This was when she had found her voice and told him what kind of idiot he was. She had a powerful grip on what was conventionally correct. That he had, as far as she knew, always been faithful made his proposition all the more outrageous. Or if he'd deceived her in the past he'd done it brilliantly. She already knew the name of the woman. Melanie. Not so remote from the name of a fatal form of skin cancer. She knew she could be obliterated by his affair with this twenty-eight-year-old statistician.

"If you do this it'll be the end for us. It's as simple as that."

"Is this a threat?"

"My solemn promise."

By then she had regained her temper. And it did seem simple. The moment to propose an open marriage was before the wedding, not thirty-five years later. To risk all they had so that he might relive a passing sensual thrill! When she tried to imagine wanting something like it for herself—her "last fling" would be her first—she could think only of disruption, assignations, disappointment, ill-timed phone calls. The sticky business of learning to be with someone new in bed, newly devised endearments, all the fakery. Finally, the necessary disentangling, the effort required to be open and sincere. And nothing quite the same when she came away. No, she preferred an imperfect existence, the one she had now.

But on the chaise longue it rose before her, the true extent of the insult, how he was prepared to pay for his pleasures with her misery. Ruthless. She had seen him single-minded at the expense of others, most often in a good cause. This was new. What had changed? He had stood erect, feet well apart as he poured his single malt, the fingers of his free hand moving to a tune in his head, some shared song perhaps, not shared with her. Hurting her and not caring—that was new. He had always been kind, loyal and kind, and kindness, the Family Division daily proved, was the essential human ingredient. She had the power to remove a child from an unkind parent and she sometimes did. But remove herself from an unkind husband? When she was weak and desolate? Where was her protective judge?

Self-pity in others embarrassed her, and she wouldn't have it now. She was having a third drink instead. But she poured only a token measure, added much water and returned to her couch. Yes, it had been the kind of conversation of which she should have taken notes. Important to remember, to measure the insult carefully. When she threatened to end the marriage if he went ahead, he had simply repeated himself, told her again how he loved her, always would, that there was no other life but this, that his unmet sexual needs caused him great unhappiness, that there was this one chance and he wanted to take it with her knowledge and, so he hoped, her assent. He was speaking to her in the spirit of openness. He could have done it "behind her back." Her thin, unforgiving back.

"Oh," she murmured. "That's decent of you, Jack."

"Well, actually..." he said, and didn't finish.

She guessed he was about to tell her the affair had already begun and she couldn't bear to hear it. Didn't need to. She saw it. A pretty statistician working on the diminishing probability of a man returning to an embittered wife. She saw a sunlit morning, an unfamiliar bathroom, and Jack, still decently muscled, pulling a half-unbuttoned clean white linen shirt over his head in that impatient way he had, a discarded shirt tossed toward the laundry basket hanging by one arm before sliding to the floor. Perdition. It would happen, with or without her consent.

"The answer's no." She had used a rising tone, like a flinty schoolmarm. She added, "What else would you expect me to say?"

She felt helpless and wanted the conversation to end. There was a judgment to approve before tomorrow for publication in the Family Law Reports. The fates of two Jewish schoolgirls had already been settled in the ruling she had delivered in court, but the prose needed to be smoothed, as did the respect owed to piety in order to be proof against an appeal. Outside, summer rain beat against the windows; distantly, from beyond Gray's Inn Square, tires hissed on drenched asphalt. He would leave her and the world would go on.

His face had been tight as he shrugged and turned to leave the room. At the sight of his retreating back, she felt the same cold fear. She would have called after him but for the dread of being ignored. And what could she say? Hold me, kiss me, have the girl. She had listened to his footsteps down the hall, their bedroom door closing firmly, then silence settling over their flat, silence and the rain that hadn't stopped in a month.

First the facts. Both parties were from the tight folds of the strictly observant Haredi community in north London. The Bernsteins' marriage was arranged by their parents, with no expectation of dissent. Arranged, not forced, both parties, in rare accord, insisted. Thirteen years on, all agreed, mediator, social worker and judge included, that here was a marriage beyond repair. The couple were now separated. Between them they managed with difficulty the care of the two children, Rachel and Nora, who lived with the mother and had extensive contact with the father. Marriage breakdown had started in the early years. After the difficult birth of the second girl, the mother was unable to conceive again, due to radical surgery. The father had set his heart on a large family and thus began the painful unraveling. After a period of depression (prolonged, said the father; brief, said the mother), she studied at the Open University, gained a good qualification and entered on a career in teaching at primary level once the younger had started school. This arrangement did not suit the father or the many relatives. Within the Haredim, whose traditions were unbroken for centuries, women were expected to raise children, the more the better, and look after the home. A university degree and a job were highly unusual. A senior figure of good standing in the community was called as a witness by the father and said as much.

Men did not receive much education either. From their mid-teens, they were expected to give most of their time to studying the Torah. Generally, they did not go to university. Partly for this reason, many Haredim were of modest means. But not the Bernsteins, though they would be when their lawyers' bills were settled. A grandparent with a share in a patent for an olive-pitting machine had settled money on the couple jointly. They expected to spend everything they had on their respective silks, both women well known to the judge. On the surface, the dispute concerned Rachel and Nora's schooling. However, at stake was the entire context of the girls' growing up. It was a fight for their souls.

Haredi boys and girls were educated separately to preserve their purity. Modish clothes, television and the Internet were forbidden, and so was mixing with children who were allowed such distractions. Homes that did not observe strict kosher rules were out of bounds. Every aspect of daily existence was well covered by established customs. The problem had started with the mother, who was breaking with the community, though not with Judaism. Against the father's objections, she was already sending the girls to a coeducational Jewish secondary school where television, pop music, the Internet and mixing with non-Jewish children were permitted. She wanted her girls to stay on at school past the age of sixteen and to go to university if they wished. In her written evidence she said she wanted her daughters to know more about how others lived, to be socially tolerant, to have the career opportunities she never had, and as adults to be economically self-sufficient, with the chance of meeting the sort of husband with professional skills who could help to support a family. Unlike her husband, who gave all his time to studying, and teaching the Torah eight hours a week without pay.

For all the reasonableness of her case, Judith Bernstein—angular pale face, uncovered frizzy ginger hair fastened with a huge blue clasp—was not an easy presence in court. A constant passing forward with freckly agitated fingers of notes to her counsel, much muted sighing, eye-rolling and lip-pursing whenever her husband's counsel spoke, inappropriate rummaging and jiggling in an outsized camel leather handbag, removing from it at one low point in a long afternoon a pack of cigarettes and a lighter—provocative items in her husband's scheme, surely—and lining them up side by side, on hand for when the court rose. Fiona saw all this from her advantage of height but pretended not to.

Mr. Bernstein’s written evidence was intended to persuade the judge that his wife was a selfish woman with “anger- management  problems” (in the Family Division, a common, often mutual charge) who had turned her back on her marriage vows, argued with his parents and her community, cutting the girls off from both. On the contrary, Judith said from the stand, it was her parents-in-law who would not see her or the children until they had returned to the proper way of life, disowned the modern world, including social media, and until she kept a home that was kosher by their terms.

Mr. Julian Bernstein, reedily tall, like one of the rushes that hid the infant Moses, apologetically stooped over court papers, sidelocks stirring  moodily as his barrister accused his wife of being unable to separate her own needs from the children’s. What she said they needed was whatever she wanted for herself. She was wrenching the girls away from a warmly secure and familiar environment, disciplined but loving, whose rules and observances provided for every contingency, whose identity was clear, its methods proven through the generations, and whose members were generally happier and more fulfilled than those of the secular consumerist world outside—a world that mocked the spiritual life and whose mass culture denigrated girls and women. Her ambitions were frivolous, her methods disrespectful, even destructive. She loved her children far less than she loved herself.

To which Judith responded huskily that nothing denigrated a person, boy or girl, more than the denial of a decent education and the dignity of proper work; that all through her childhood and teenage years she had been told that her only purpose in life was to run a nice home for her husband and care for his children—and that too was a denigration of her right to choose a purpose for herself. When she pursued, with great difficulty, her studies at the Open University, she faced ridicule, contempt and anathemas. She had promised herself that the girls would not suffer the same limitations.

The opposing barristers were in tactical agreement (because it was plainly the judge’s view) that the issue was not merely a matter of education. The court must choose, on behalf of the children, between total religion and something a little less. Between cultures, identities, states of mind, aspirations, sets of family relations, fundamental definitions, basic loyalties, unknowable futures.

In such matters there lurked an innate predisposition in favor of the status quo, as long as it appeared benign. The draft of Fiona’s judgment was twenty-one pages long, spread in a wide fan facedown on the floor, waiting for her to take it up, a sheet at a time, to mark with soft pencil.

No sound from the bedroom, nothing but the susurrus of traffic gliding through the rain. She resented the way she was listening out for him, her attention poised, holding its breath, for the creak of the door or a floorboard. Wanting it,  dreading it.

Among fellow judges, Fiona Maye was praised, even in her absence, for crisp prose, almost ironic, almost warm, and for the compact terms in which she laid out a dispute. The Lord Chief Justice himself was heard to observe of her in a murmured aside at lunch, “Godly distance, devilish understanding, and still beautiful.” Her own view was that with each passing year she inclined a little more to an exactitude some might have called pedantry, to the unassailable  definition that might pass one day into frequent citation, like Hoffmann in Piglowska v. Piglowski, or Bingham or Ward or the indispensable Scarman, all of whom she had made use of here. Here being the limp, unperused first page hanging from her fingers. Was her life about to change? Were learned friends soon to be murmuring in awe over lunch here, or in Lincoln’s or Inner or Middle Temple, And then she threw him out? Out of the delightful Gray’s Inn flat, where she would sit alone until at last the rent, or the years, mounting like the sullen tidal Thames, swept her out too?

Back to her business. Section one: “Background.” After routine observations about the family’s living arrangements, about residence of the children and contact with the father, she described in a separate paragraph the Haredi community, and how within it religious practice was a total way of life. The distinction between what was rendered to Caesar and what to God was meaningless, much as it was for observant Muslims. Her pencil hovered. To cast Muslim and Jew as one, might that seem unnecessary or provocative, at least to the father? Only if he was unreasonable, and she thought he was not. Stet.

Her second section was entitled “Moral differences.” The court was being asked to choose an education for two young girls, to choose between values. And in cases like this one, an appeal to what was generally acceptable in society at large was of little help. It was here she invoked Lord Hoffmann. “These are value judgments on which reasonable people may differ. Since judges are also people, this means that some degree of diversity in their application of values is inevitable...”

Over the page, in her lately developing taste for the patient, exacting digression, Fiona devoted several hundred words to a definition of welfare, and then a consideration of the standards to which such welfare might be held. She followed Lord Hailsham in allowing the term to be inseparable from well-being and to include all that was relevant to a child’s development as a person. She acknowledged Tom Bingham in accepting that she was obliged to take a medium- and long-term view, noting that a child today might well live into the twenty-second century. She quoted from an 1893 judgment by Lord Justice Lindley to the effect that welfare was not to be gauged in purely financial terms, or merely by reference to physical comfort. She would take the widest possible view. Welfare, happiness, well-being must embrace the philosophical concept of the good life. She listed some relevant ingredients, goals toward which a child might grow. Economic and moral freedom, virtue, compassion and altruism, satisfying work through engagement with demanding tasks, a flourishing network of personal relationships, earning the esteem of others, pursuing larger meanings to one’s existence, and having at the center of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love.

Yes, by this last essential she herself was failing. The Scotch and water in a tumbler at her side was untouched; the sight of its urinous yellow, its intrusive  corky smell, now repelled her. She should be angrier, she should be talking to an old friend—she had several—she should be striding into the bedroom, demanding to know more. But she felt shrunken to a geometrical point of anxious purpose. Her judgment must be ready for printing by tomorrow’s deadline, she must work. Her personal life was nothing. Or should have been. Her attention remained divided between the page in her hand and, fifty feet away, the closed bedroom door. She made herself read a long paragraph, one she had been dubious about the moment she had spoken it aloud in court. But no harm in a robust statement of the obvious. Well-being was social. The intricate web of a child’s relationships with family and friends was the crucial ingredient. No child an island. Man a social animal, in Aristotle’s famous construction. With four hundred words on this theme, she put to sea, with learned references (Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill) filling her sails. The kind of civilized reach every good judgment needs.

And next, well-being was a mutable concept, to be evaluated by the standards of the reasonable man or woman of today. What sufficed a generation ago might now fall short. And again, it was no business of the secular court to decide between religious beliefs or theological differences. All religions were deserving of respect provided they were, in Lord Justice Purchas’s phrase, “legally and socially acceptable” and not, in Lord Justice Scarman’s darker formulation, “immoral or socially obnoxious.”

Courts should be slow to intervene in the interests of the child against the religious principles of the parents. Sometimes they must. But when? In reply, she invoked one of her favorites, wise Lord Justice  Munby in the Court of Appeal. “The infinite variety of the human condition precludes arbitrary definition.” The admirable Shakespearean touch. Nor custom stale her infinite variety. The words derailed her. She knew the speech of Enobarbus by heart, having played him once as a law student, an all-female affair on a lawn in Lincoln’s Inn Fields one sunny midsummer’s afternoon. When the burden of bar exams had recently been lifted from her aching back. Around that time, Jack fell in love with her, and not long after, she with him. Their first lovemaking was in a borrowed attic room that roasted under its roof in the afternoon sun. An unopenable porthole window gave a view east of a slice of Thames toward the Pool of London.

She thought of his proposed or actual lover, his statistician, Melanie—she had met her once—a silent young woman with heavy amber beads and a taste for the kind of stilettos that could wreck an old oak floor. Other women cloy/The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry/Where most she satisfies. It could be just like that, a poisonous obsession, an addiction drawing him away from home, bending him out of shape, consuming all they had of past and future, as well as present. Or Melanie belonged, as Fiona herself clearly did, with “other women,” the ones who cloy, and he would be back within the fortnight, appetite sated, making plans for the family holiday.

Either way, unbearable.
Unbearable and fascinating. And irrelevant. She forced herself back to her pages, to her summary of the evidence from both parties—efficient and drily sympathetic  enough. Next, her account of the court-appointed social worker’s report. A plump, well-intentioned young woman often out of breath, uncombed hair, untucked unbuttoned blouse. Chaotic, twice late for the proceedings, due to some complicated trouble with car keys and documents locked in her car and a child to collect from school. But in place of the usual please-both-parties dither, the Cafcass woman’s account was sensible, even incisive, and Fiona quoted her with approval. Next?

She looked up and saw her husband on the other side of the room, pouring another drink, a big one, three fingers, perhaps four. And barefoot now, as he, the bohemian academic, often was indoors in summer. Hence the quiet entrance. Likely he had been lying on the bed, regarding for half an hour the lacy ceiling moldings, reflecting on her unreasonableness. The hunched tension of the shoulders, the way he returned the stopper—a smack with the heel of his thumb—suggested that he had padded in for an argument. She knew the signs.

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The Children Act 3.6 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 36 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I received this book from GoodReads/ First Reads and the publisher. And I thank them in advance for their generosity. However, I was not compensated otherwise and my opinions are my own. Now you know, and knowing's half the battle ;) The last Ian McEwan I read was 'Atonement', and even all these years later it still felt as though I sligged through a theology textbook. With that memory forefront, I began a bound galley of "The Children Act" about a British judge, her husband, and some of the cases she has before her, one of which peppers the book with ethical boundry issues, intellegence, faith and the different forms of love out there in the world. Fiona Maye is a High Court judge whose specialty is the equivilent of Family Court. Over the years, she has become known for her understanding of culture and religious empathy, and her verdicts are well respected. Her homelife is another story. She and her husband are estranged, virtual strangers. And when he confronts her about it, she sends him out and changes the locks, looking for some peace like that she reflects in her working life. And then a particular case causes her distress as she must rule in a case concerning Jehovah's Witness beliefs and the understandings of a 17 year old. Can he be considered an adult? Are his protestations romantic notions, or true beliefs. Struggling, she turns in part to legalities to make her decisions, with strained results. As the case fades, her understandings of adult decisions transform. The black and white of law become shades of greys and sepia as everyone lives with and within her decision. And transformation occurs. This wasn't an easy read. For a relatively short book, I could not read it all in one sitting. I could see in my mind's eye Dame Judy Dench and Geoffrey Palmer as Fiona and Jack( That can't be as Dame Judith is no longer acting, and I do not know if Palmer is either). I kept going back to the premise of Judge Maye's decision: the Gillick competence stating that if a minor child can be deemed competent, his or her wishes would be treated with all due fairness as an adult. (The Family Reform Act of 1969 sec.8 paraphrase). The question I am left with, and that will haunt me, is , is anyone competent enough to understand the consequences of their actions. And, are they willing to live with them?
NathanDPhillips More than 1 year ago
I was sorely disappointed with McEwan's last novel, Sweet Tooth. I felt it was not nearly as clever as it thought itself to be and was worried that one of my favorite authors was dwindling in his old age. How thankful I am that The Children Act proved me wrong. The novel deviates from many of McEwan's normal plot points. There is no terrifying sexual twist, no horribly grotesque opening scene. However, through each of the five chapters, every plot point that McEwan hits is right on. Discussions about the law and about court proceedings are interesting and cause one to pause and think through the political and philosophical ramifications of what is taking place. The main conflict in question - whether the protagonist will allow a hospital to treat a Jehovah's Witness youth against his and his parents will - is exciting and deep enough that it could have made for a much longer book.The only thing that disappointed me about the book was I felt that the language was not nearly as innovative as in other McEwan novels. That's not to say it's bad. it's still very strong. I just wanted a bit more innovation.
Annakel More than 1 year ago
I have read all of McEwan's books (Saturday is my personal favourite). I found the book to be an easy read, though the topics are deeper, the judge deciding whether a 17 year old has the right to voice his own medical decision. Her personal life is shattering and as she deals with her decision about the 17 year old, she grows personally, more able to deal with her shattering relationship with her husband. I recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it but was dissapointed that it was so short! Seemed like it was too expensive for a couple of hours read. Wish the number of pages was provided
jak18 More than 1 year ago
I liked this novel more than I expected to. It is about family, marriage, children, religion and the law. The title refers to a bit of English law: "When a court determines any question with respect to...the upbringing of a child...the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration." This piece of legislation from 1989 is a giant step towards civilization from the climate of British legal views on children in the days when Charles Dickens grew up. I kept finding myself thinking of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield as I read. But the child in question here is only months away from turning 18. Because he was raised and protected from the world by devout Jehovah's Witnesses, he has a childlike view of life and the world. He is dying of a disease (was it leukemia? I don't recall) and could possibly be saved by a blood transfusion but his parents will not allow it as that would violate their religious beliefs. Fiona Maye, a middle aged, childless High Court judge in family court holds the power to decide what has become a legal battle between the parents and the hospital where the boy lies dying. Concurrent with the progression of the case is a horrific problem in Fiona's marriage. In almost perfect prose with impeccable timing, the drama plays out. Each character is poised on some brink where passions and disappointments in life meet the person's capacity for making good and sensible judgements. Or you could call it an inner battle of maturity meets childishness. Of course, no one really ever wins in such battles. Life is not that simple and is in fact messy. Turning 18 or even 60 is no guarantee of maturity. McEwan keeps the reader captive on these brinks he created which makes for an incredibly good read. He does not judge, even while every character makes judgements and thus we see ourselves and others with increased empathy. I read this for one of my reading groups and we had one of our best discussions ever.
SuseNJ More than 1 year ago
A moving story with surprises and suspense, very well-written.
TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
In calm, clear, patient English McEwan presents a particularly agonizing example of the stunning success and haunting failure of a juridical system, indeed, of a well-tempered, well-disciplined judicial mind. A transcendently wise decision over a matter of life and death cannot save a vital, loving, innocent teenaged boy without concomitant fulfilment of the obligation to prepare him for the world. McEwan’s prose is precise, alluring, devilish, revealing in a paragraph a history, in a pause an acceptance. It is magisterial. McEwan’s quietly devastating intellectual and legal thriller has the requisite two plot threads, but both occur within the confines of one character, Fiona. One thread traces the crumbling of a long-time marriage between two successful adults on the cusp of old age, and the other is defined by a case Fiona is handling in court. McEwan’s choice to make his central character a judge and a woman brings an undeniable tension to our reading. We are not accustomed to imagining the home lives of judges. The dissolution, by silence and sighs, of a long-term marriage is distressing enough, but when neither party wants it, it is a kind of willful “suicide” and we are undone. The case that delivers the coup de grâce features a religious young man undergoing medical treatment for leukemia. His faith does not allow a life-saving blood transfusion and Fiona must decide whether he is to live with treatment or certainly die.  It is ungainly to pair the word “children” with “jurisprudence” by any stretch of the imagination, and yet that is something McEwan does here. It is something many family lawyers do every day, day in and day out, for their working lives. The tension created by the cool, educated rationality and judicial restraint exhibited in a hotly debated and divisive case of life-giving treatment versus religious scruple is stomach-churning and mind-roiling. Fiona makes a wise decision hailed by all litigants (view spoiler). McEwan skillfully manages us by cranking up the tension and releasing it in unexpected ways. On the day Fiona visits the boy in her case to see if he is aware of the consequences of his decisions, she inappropriately experiences a thrill of excitement in contemplation of the hospital visit. Fiona "likes hospitals." She has good memories of her own hospital stay as a child. As she enters, the décor of the hospital parodies the ambiance of an international airport promising different destinations, PEDIATRIC ONCOLOGY, NUCLEAR MEDICINE, PHLEBOTOMY, in signs with motorway lettering. The absurdity of these observations helps us through our approach to the too-terrible-to-contemplate interview. The hospital bedside scene is unexpected, surprising, life-giving--filled with tension and its not-quite release. Another gorgeous set-piece comes months later. Nowhere had McKwen even hinted at anything so crass as sexism in the high courts. But in one slyly telling scene he has Fiona on assignment in Newcastle, staying overnight without her husband in a drafty mansion with four other judges “in dark suits and ties, each holding a gin and tonic, [who] ceased talking and rose from their armchairs as she entered.” At dinner, “after a hiatus of polite dithering, it was agreed that, for the sake of symmetry, Fiona should sit at the head. So far she had barely spoken.” During the dinner conversation about ongoing cases under adjudication, one diner solicitously interrupts Fiona’s closest dinner companion with “I hope you realize just how distinguished a judge this is that you’re talking to.” Just in case you missed her significance. Even when Fiona is away from court and home there is tension. She has set herself up to open Christmas Revels in the Great Hall, playing Berlioz, Mahler, Schubert on piano in front of colleagues where “standards were punitively high for an amateur affair…It was said they knew a bad note before it was played.” Her schedule permits little time for practice, but when she finally is able to schedule a practice with the barrister with whom she is to perform, he spends acres of precious time ranting about a case he is working on, while we listen and grow anxious.  The lawyerly rants seeded throughout the novel serve many purposes. The first crushes any notion of pure Justice. Any system of justice made by imperfect persons will be imperfect. We also can see the eminent reasonableness of the barristers in their struggle to serve justice. The rants increase the readers’ tension not only because they may be long and complicated but because we know any ruling will be fraught with dissent and division. These things place a judge in an intolerable position. Fiona recognizes in law concerning children “kindness…[is] the essential human ingredient.”  One cannot help but imagine a terrific movie being made from this carefully crafted short novel. Sections of it read like stage directions, so much do we learn from a glance, a setting, a situation. So much of the tension in the relationship between Fiona and her husband is manifestly visual and unspoken, so polite and yet so hurtful. And the boy. We want to see the boy.  McEwan writes with such economy, clarity, humor, and insight that it is always a joy to discover what he will to focus on next. The 2014 hardcover edition published by Doubleday is beautifully printed, and a pleasure to hold, to read. I even like the cover. Kudos all round on this one. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one book you don't want to miss. Ian is at his best in this book . His character portrayal has you picturing each character and walking with him or her and wanting to change some to fit the readers approach to life. Ian has an imagination that knows no bounds as he weaves this story into a book that captivates the reader. There are unexpected twists as one explores the depths of his story. Don't miss this. I was drawn to the book by his book interview on one of the radio inter- views on an educational talk show. He is as good in an interview as he is a writer. He explained how he creates his characters from his walk through the mists that appear to him as he writes. This book is a keeper. You will want it for your own library to loan to friends. My husband is a writer so this book was one we really appreciated. It is a good book for book club discussion as each reader could be drawn for opposing views.
Paul_Meyer More than 1 year ago
The Children Act is another masterfully written work in the classic McEwan vein. An ambiguous yet evocative story line challenge the reader to examine and embrace the complexity and nuances of love as a core human value. Like "Saturday Morning" or "Black Dogs", the author depicts life unfolding and shaping the characters through moments sublime and tragic. McEwan offers no apologies for his characters and no easy answers for the reader. The Children Act isn't about children, the judiciary, or even about religion versus humanism. It is about human love in all its forms struggling against circumstances that loom and linger in the life of each character. The Children Act is serious fiction that rewards with the gift of perspective and thoughtful insight.
lezertje More than 1 year ago
This book pulls you into the story. It makes you take sides and wonder how it will develop. The end comes too soon. A great read.
AnonMI More than 1 year ago
I found it, overall, a bit tedious in parts.  It was interesting in presenting the Jehovah Witness case as that has been an issue in our coursts also. However, overall, I was a bit tired after finishing it, feeling as if I had been privy to a woman having a late mid-life crisis that is so far from my own life I found nothing I could relate to. Quite expensive for such a short book.
Delphimo 12 days ago
The book started very slowly, and made this reader feel that the effort could be in vain. I perseveres, and the book gathers momentum. A judge, Fiona, must rule on whether a seventeen-year-old Seven Day Adventist boy should be given a blood transfusion. Fiona goes to the hospital and meets the boy, and bases her decision on the meeting. McEwan interweaves Fiona's tale of boredom and despair with the story of Adam, the sick youth while relating the regulations that Fiona must obey in her decision. Fiona reaches her decision, and the story escalates and just as quickly ends. The novel does not develop the characters, but attempts to explain Adam and Fiona's psyche.
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The writing style is much better than the actual story. I found the story boring, and I could not identify with any of the characters. The whole business about the young Jehovah Wittness boy who became obsessed with Fiona is rather unbelievable and, frankly, not very interesting. Fiona's husband is immature and irritating. I wish she had divorced him instead of ending up in bed with him at the end.
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This is a very engaging story, getting you involved in the story right from the start. Very well written and thought provoking.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoy Ian McEwan's novels, but all have a darkly disturbing undercurrent. The characters are fully drawn and the plot unusual, but I'm always left wondering what I was supposed to take away from the book. What was Mr McEwan trying to show?
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