The Children Act – Ian McEwan

This book broke my heart. I read it few weeks ago when spring was very far away (now it’s just far away), days were short and probably I was a bit more vulnerable, but this book really got to me.

Fiona Maye is a judge in Family Division, she is married, has no children and won’t have them. She spent her entire life judging others and now her husband puts a mirror in front of her and forces her to judge her own life when she is already feeling fragile from the traumatic case she had to rule on (separations of Siamese twins, where one was ‘killing’ the other). As if the ultimatum her husband gives her is not enough she also has to rule on a case of a 17 year old Adam.

He has leukemia and his treatment requires blood transfusion to be fully effective, his parents however are Jehovah’s Witnesses and refuse the transfusion, Adam agrees with them and is ready to die as a martyr. The hospital brings the case to court and Fiona has to rule within few days on whether the boy should be given the transfusion. Because of her emotional state she decides to do something unusual in such cases (though why would it be unusual is beyond me…) – she visits Adam in hospital and listens to his arguments before ruling.

This book is very tender; it focuses on Fiona’s thoughts and emotions. Shows her struggle to control her life and her emotions, because she knows every time she allows herself to be spontaneous it ends badly, but on the other hand this is exactly what her husband accuses her of – being too controlled. She treats her work as a shield from her personal life, but at the same time it affects her personal life deeply, the distance she needs to keep to stay sane cannot be just switched off when she comes back home.

The book is also about how people need other people to function. How it doesn’t matter how confident we feel in our lives, they are built from our interactions. In some situations only another person can save us. It is a book about life that passed, life in which there’s a lot of regrets but also a lot to cherish, about trying to rebuild it, because it’s not over until it’s over.

There were many aspects to this book that I found interesting. One of them was the process of ruling and writing a judgement, it is a very intellectual process, where emotions should have no place, but one where not only decision but argumentation is key. When I read how Fiona constructed her rulings I felt like she was solving an extremely difficult puzzle. Another interesting thing that McEwan touched upon was the matter of social standing and the repercussions that divorce may cause, it is very important to characters to keep appearances, because in their class it matters. Yet another one was the right of parents to decide about their child, does it have limits and where are they? When should the law step in?

I think the parts that moved me most were those where Fiona looked back at her life, realizing she is 60 now and some things cannot be changed. Her fear of being replaced, abandoned, being not good enough, her second thoughts on not having children, and then the anger and rebellion those thoughts caused in her – I could relate to all those emotions.

Initially, the ending annoyed me, I couldn’t understand it, but then I started thinking and it became more probable. I probably would have behaved differently but I could relate to Fiona’s decision and see where she is coming from.

If you read it please share your thoughts in comments. Did it move you? Or maybe you found it boring?

If you didn’t read it – do.

Quotes from The Children Act

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska

15 thoughts on “The Children Act – Ian McEwan

  1. I think Ian McEwan is one of my favorite writers. And The Children Act was amazing. I loved this book, and certainly think it’s moving. I almost want to say that his writing is hypnotic. Fiona’s instability is somewhat relatable and you can really feel what she is feeling.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Deepika Ramesh

        I have read only two too, Jo. I have read his children’s novel ‘The Daydreamer’. That was such a fun read. What is the other one that you have read?


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