Ian McEwan’s Lackluster ‘The Children Act’ Focuses on Intense Legal Complexities

Lee Polevoi


The Children Act

By Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

221 pages


British High Court Judge Fiona Maye serves in the Family Division, where for many years she’s decided the outcomes of custody battles, bitter divorces and a host of other domestic disputes. Fiona is wise, experienced, pragmatic, and devoted to the law. As Ian McEwan’s new novel opens, she’s also facing a marital crisis in her own household. Her husband, Jack, wants to have an affair.


Fiona’s difficulties are just beginning. At the same time her marriage threatens to implode, a case is presented to her of exceptional legal complexity: a 17-year-old boy and his parents (all Jehovah’s Witnesses) refuse medical care for his leukemia that’s critically necessary to keep him alive. This treatment includes the use of blood transfusion, expressly prohibited by their religion. The hospital has petitioned the High Court to intervene, so that doctors may begin the potentially life-saving procedure, over the family’s strictest objections.


For all the potential drama presaged in the opening pages, The Children Act stubbornly refuses for the longest time to engage the reader. McEwan demonstrates his ample knowledge of the British legal system, no surprise since he’s done such a similarly impressive job with cardiovascular medicine, environmental science, World War II, etc. But laying the groundwork to establish such credibility takes up many of the early pages, undercutting the dramatic premise and robbing the novel of forward motion. It’s a problem the author fails to overcome in time.



McEwan is virtually unequalled in his ability to meld a character’s personality with his or her chosen profession. This is what makes Fiona a compelling character, at the expense of others like Jack or even Adam Henry, the teenage leukemia patient, both of whom never quite come into focus.


Also, McEwan remains a master of lapidary prose. In one scene, Fiona, joined by other distinguished jurisprudents at a country manor outside Newcastle, observes the fury of an English storm:


“The storm arrived as she returned from her bath. She stood at the center window in a dressing gown watching squalls of rain, tall ghostly shapes, hurrying across the fields, which for seconds were lost to view. She saw the topmost branch of one of the nearer beeches snap and begin to fall, upend itself and swing as it was held by lower branches, than plunge again, become entangled, then freed by the wind, hit the drive with a crack. Almost as loud as the rain hissing against the gravel was the moaning tumult in the guttering. She turned on the lights and began to dress. She was already ten minutes late for sherry in the drawing room.”


Every novel deserves to stand on its own merits, but in an oeuvre as rich as McEwan’s, comparisons are inevitable. The Children Act lacks the broad sweep of Atonement, the compulsive narrative thrust of The Innocent and the texture of Sweet Tooth. This feels like McEwan in a minor key – well worth reading, but less likely to be a work for which he’ll be remembered.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, chief book critic for Highbrow Magazine, is completing a new novel.  

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