Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book Review: "The Children Act" by Ian McEwan

I told a friend on Goodreads recently that I find myself running hot and cold on Ian McEwan's books. I really enjoyed Enduring Love but couldn't tolerate Atonement (and I know I'm in the minority on that one). Yet something about his newest book, The Children Act intrigued me—perhaps I wondered what a McEwan-esque take on what sounded like a plot from a Jodi Picoult novel would be like.

Fiona Maye is a well-respected High Court judge presiding over family court cases. Yet while she comes across as sensible, practical, unflappable, her professional demeanor belies the turmoil of her personal life. Her marriage is in trouble, and she's not sure how she feels about that fact. Is she angry? Hurt? Depressed? The one thing she knows for certain is she's starting to feel betrayed by her growing older, and wondering if pursuing her career so doggedly was the right decision.

"To be caught out enacting her part in a cliché showed poor taste rather than a moral lapse. Restless husband in one last throw, brave wife maintaining her dignity, younger woman remote and blameless."

As the judge on call one night she is summoned regarding an urgent case. Adam, a highly intelligent, 17-year-old boy, is gravely ill, yet because of religious reasons he refuses the necessary blood transfusion and treatments his doctors dictate. To refuse these treatments will most likely mean death, if not paralysis or other life-altering disability. The hospital and the court-appointed social worker believe Adam is too young to make his own decisions, and has been brainwashed by his parents and other religious elders. Yet Adam maintains he knows his own mind, but would rather face death or permanent disability than go against his religion.

Needing to make a decision very quickly, Fiona takes the unorthodox route of visiting Adam in the hospital. She is drawn in by his fierce intelligence and his devotion to his religion, as well as his creativity and sensitivity. She is utterly unprepared for the way this encounter makes her feel, as unprepared as she is for the chain of events her visit sets into motion. And she must make a difficult decision—should she overrule Adam's wishes (and determine that he, three months' shy of the age of consent, is not mature enough to understand the gravity of his situation) or should she doom him to possible death?

"Religions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a great distance, non obviously higher, more important, truer than another. What was to judge?"

I found this book tremendously intriguing. I wondered, given the way many of McEwan's books unfold, exactly what would happen, and I was reasonably happy with the choices he made. I enjoyed the characters and actually wished the book was a little longer so that the reader was able to spend more time with them. In lesser hands this could have turned into utter hystrionics, but I thought McEwan's restraint was true to the plot. I haven't stopped thinking about this one, nearly a week after I finished it, so that's definitely the sign of a book worth reading.

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