The Children Act

Legal drama about a life and death decision

I’ve only ever read one book by this author before, but he recently came across my radar after a minor controversy where he appeared to suggest that his new novel was unlike conventional science fiction and examined ethical dilemmas instead of focusing on “anti-gravity boots“. Anyway, I’d bought this book for my friend a long time ago because I thought it’d be relevant to her interests, so I asked her if I could borrow it back to read.


“The Children Act” by Ian McEwan is a legal drama about Fiona, an English High Court judge, who specialises in family law. Although extremely successful in her work, congratulated by her peers for her well-written judgments about impossible ethical questions, Fiona’s personal life begins to fall apart when her husband announces his intention to have an affair. Unable to deal with this, Fiona throws herself headlong into a new case about a Jehovah’s Witness boy is refusing treatment for his leukemia. When the hospital makes an urgent application, Fiona decides to visit the boy in hospital to determine whether he is competent to make his own decision. However, as the judge, it is Fiona’s decision that matters the most and the way she makes it will change his life forever.

McEwan is compelling writer with a keen eye for human interest topics. This is a well-researched book and McEwan combines interesting case law with the realities of living a very privileged, but in some ways very lonely life. I thought the stand-out of this book was the character of Adam, a 17-year-old boy on the cusp of adulthood who is both dazzling in his potential and very, very young. McEwan captures his beauty and his folly extremely well.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it was I didn’t like about this book. I’ve looked at it from a few different angles, and ultimately I’ve had to conclude that it was Fiona’s characterisation. McEwan takes the stereotype of the working woman to its extreme with Fiona who had no children, has no time for her roving husband and whose only foray into any kind of wild abandon was a couple of trips to Newcastle with some cousins who are never named. Even though she is the main character, there’s an element of humanity, of realness missing from Fiona. I accept that McEwan is trying to shine a light on how cool legalistic arguments are not always suited to hot moral issues, but I refuse to accept that real people exist who are as banal as Fiona.

A well-written book but a shadow compared to my favourite fictional magistrate, Laura Gibson, who I cannot wait to see return to screen.


Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction

6 responses to “The Children Act

  1. Interesting. Whilst I found this book engrossing overall, I agree that McEwan does fall into stereotypes. Just as in Saturday, I found Fiona another of his almost ludicrously privileged upper-middle class characters that was hard to relate to.

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  2. I’ve read quite a few McEwan novels, and overall I’ve liked them a lot – some more than others though. Atonement, Enduring love and On Chesil Beach are my favourites, while Amsterdam and Solar, my least. I quite enjoyed Saturday, but over time it has receded in my memory while those three favourites, some read before I read Saturday, haven’t.

    I can’t comment on Fiona, of course, but I guess I don’t necessarily feel I have to “relate” to the characters (as librepaley argues), I just have to find them interesting and psychologically believable.

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  3. PS, Yes, bring back Laura Gibson – can’t wait either. She wasn’t perfect either though – that’s partly why we loved her isn’t it?

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    • I think the big advantage of Laura is that she appreciated that the people she made judgments about were real people in the community that she lived in, and Laura was constantly balancing her obligations as a magistrate against her relationships in a really humane way. In comparison to the warmth and compassion of SeaChange, this felt like a really stark, distant book that was missing that sense of humanity.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, fair point – and having not read The children act, I can’t really comment on what McEwan was doing. But you’re right about the compassion and humanity – but also, sometimes, the obliviousness – of Laura. There were times where she just didn’t get it.


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