Saturday, November 15, 2014

"The Children Act" - Ian McEwan's brilliant Novel about the struggle between reason and emotion.

In "The Children Act" Ian McEwan returns to the world he explored in "Saturday" speculating what might happen when someone at the top of their profession comes directly and personally in close contact with someone alien to their world. In the earlier novel the professional was a leading neurosurgeon and the alien a violent criminal. In "The Children Act" it is a Judge, Fiona Maye, and a teenage boy, Adam Henry, who is the principal subject of a case in the High Court where she sits.

Successful individuals who are in positions of authority and power can have their individuality obscured by their office. Especially so, as in the case of a Judge, when a uniform acts as a form of disguise. What McEwan does here is to remove the mask and let us see "My Lady" as the brilliant, but somewhat troubled, "Fiona" she is at heart. When a curious and discomforting relationship, of sorts, develops between her and the boy there is a key moment when he says "Look, My Lady..." and she interrupts him and says "Enough of that, it's Fiona." 

A Judge must be dispassionate and unconflicted and we hear Judge Maye's intelleftually robust, and no doubt legally correct, rulings in a number of cases, including that of Adam Henry. He is a member of a strict Jehovah's Witness family and has decided that his religion must preclude him from having the blood transfusion he needs to treat his leukaemia. He is seventeen which means that under the law he is, just, too young to make such a decision for himself. The hospital wishes to proceed with the transfusion and seeks from the Court a ruling to allow them to do this.

Fiona Maye, behind the mask, in focusing on the professional world she inhabits is disconnected to a large degree from the real world most of us live in. Her home is an apartment in Gray's Inn Square within walking distance of her Chambers and the Law Courts. She is fifty-nine and childless, not a choice she made but one which with regret she has come to live with. He husband, Jack, is struggling with a late middle-aged crisis and openly planning an affair with a much younger woman. He blames Fiona because, it seems, her concentration on her career and, perhaps, her age has greatly diminished their once very active sex life. "I want one last go" he rather crudely says. 

The law is about logic and reason and has to be dispassionate. Fiona Maye can handle this and clearly does it supremely well. She approaches her main hobby, music, in the same way and strives to be a pianist on the cusp between amateur and professional standard which, at a Law Society concert near the end of the book, she achieves. Intriguingly she has had a couple of glasses of wine before this concert and attributes her success to the slight relaxation of her nerves from the alcohol. The challenges of appearing bewigged in public pronouncing a judgment and appearing alone seated at a piano in front of 150 people are different challenges and metaphors for aspects of the public and private personas she has to reconcile. But the challenge of finding a way to resolve her marital difficulties is much more elusive. Similarly she struggles to find a way to come to terms with Adam Henry's wish to enter into a platonic, but cloyingly close relationship with her.

"The Children Act" is an intense, concentrated (just over 200 pages) and claustrophobic novel. There is no real backdrop and it is not particularly a reflection of "modern times". With slight adjustments it could have been set any time in the last fifty years or so. That said it touches on big themes - power, privilege, class, religion, personal relationships and, above all, the interplay between our rational and emotional selves. To make your way to the very top of a profession, particularly the Law, there have to be sacrifices along the way and, to an extent, the suppression of feelings. And whilst the rules of engagement require that any conflicts of interest are avoided that can be at a heavy cost - as this brilliant novel's denouement shows.


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