I first picked up an Ian McEwan book in 1978 when i read his Somerset Maugham Prize-winning short stories, First love, Last Rights. It was a bawdy collection of off kilter tales that I relished. He followed it up with a similar second collection, In Between the Sheets. I was now a fan, despite not being an avid reader of short stories. But the 14 publications that followed these, I’ve read them all bar Solar, are full length, albeit some of his most successful, Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach and this latest outing, The Children Act, are really novellas.
He’s covered a lot of ground as you might expect in 36 years but almost always they have been intensely personal and deep psychological insights of how people have responded to what often seem like quite random acts.
His novel, Saturday, covers a hijacking in an upscale London apartment and plays out, in extreme tension, over the course of a single day. On Chesil Beach, if memory serves me correctly, takes place in a similarly condensed timeframe.
Six of his books have been Booker Prize nominated (although only Amsterdam, controversially, triumphed) and eight have been made into movies (Sweet Tooth is currently in development).
So it’s fair to say that McEwan comes to the writing of The Children Act with some positive credentials.
Nevertheless, I was blown away by this slight (200 page) novel that deals with the reaction of a 60 year old female family law judge and a case she presides over. It regards the refusal to take a life saving blood transfusion by a 17 year old Jehova’s Witness boy on the grounds that his religion forbids it.
The case coincides with a particularly rocky patch in her long, loving but childless, marriage and it is this central irony that makes these two situations riff off each other in a way that has a profound impact on her life.
It is clear that our central character, judge Fiona May, is a good and extremely considerate, intelligent and thoughtful woman both personally and professionally and that’s what drives this story. The book is all about ‘doing the right thing’ in all aspects of her life and relationships and is profoundly thought provoking and moving as a result. To say more would only run the risk of spoilers so I will leave it at that.
McEwan crafts his novels with extreme diligence, yet never appears to overwork his writing; rarely more so than in this tremendous outing. The one exception being the below par Sweet Tooth.
Absolutely and unequivocally recommended.
A master at work and an assured masterpiece is the result.