If there’s one thing that I can be certain of in this life, it is that if I am at a loss for something to read, Ian McEwan will certainly deliver greatness. The Children Act didn’t disappoint.
There was a special quality to this book that I think rested in the intimate yet detached narrative voice afforded by the perspective of Fiona Maye – a leading HIgh Court judge presiding over cases in the family court. Maye is a perfect protagonist; she loves her job, is committed to the morality and ethics of the outcomes she delivers, she is in awe of the law and yet she is distant from the people she rules against as her position necessitates. This affords her the ability, as a narrator, to present a simultaneously distant (her husband might say cold), yet intimate view of the cases that come across her desk. McEwan replicates this in his text: “London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather.” The truncated sentences, sparse but layered with implied detail, provide the perfect space for Maye as narrator. The Washington Post describes The Children Act as “finely choreographed”, too long to be a novella but with “that focused intensity and single arc”.
With elegance and skill, in two pages, McEwan paints Maye as first an accomplished, professional, emotionally removed judge whose life is littered with the rewards of that position, and then, almost in the same breath, he exposes her humanity – “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!’… ‘How dare you!'” – she is talking to her husband, Jack, who has just declared that he needs to have an affair because he feels unsatisfied in their marriage. The stark juxtaposition between the complex issues that Maye is considering in advance of her court appearance in the morning – “Tomorrow, coming before her again would be a despairing Englishwoman …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 Rababt, where he intended to settle” – and her emotional response to her husband which unfolds half in her subconscious and half out loud.
I loved the tenuous balance that McEwan weaves between Maye as judge and Maye as wife. For me, it was this that afforded the book its brilliance, its ebb and flow, indeed, its edge. It is this that enables McEwan to explore a complex legal issue without drowning in the details and jargon, allowing Maye’s voice to be believable and honest, for her to be trustworthy narrator.
Inspired by true events, The Children Act swept me along in a symphony of reading bliss. It is exactly the type of reading experience that I like to highly recommend!