The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for not answering letters


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Ailment: Not answering letters

Cure: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Letter-writing is a dying art, but occasionally we receive a hand-written, heartfelt missive which speaks from the soul. Finding both the time and the words to reply appropriately is hard, but we sit on these cris de coeur at our peril – because what else but an extreme of emotion moves someone these days to put ink on to paper? Your future, and that of your correspondent, might hang in the balance. As bibliotherapists we don't generally cure with guilt-trips; but if you have any unanswered letters lurking on your desk, McEwan's latest will have you grabbing your pen pronto.

Fiona Maye is a high-court judge at the peak of her career. Every day she makes decisions that change the course of people's lives: Siamese twins must be separated or allowed to die; families sundered by religious beliefs must be glued together or prised apart; and now, an 18-year-old Jehovah's Witness could be ordered to have a blood transfusion by virtue of the Children's Act.

Meanwhile, Fiona's husband Jack has decided that he wants to have an affair. This shocking announcement throws Fiona off balance, and she finds herself closer than she should be to the emotions behind the judgements she must make. Her unaccustomed vulnerability prompts a visit to the Jehovah's Witness, Adam, in hospital, where she is deeply moved by his beauty and intelligence. After her visit, Adam feels the need of a new mentor to replace his church. Fiona is the obvious choice, and he writes her intense, adolescent letters. She never quite manages a reply.

If Fiona hadn't spent time debating what the appropriate response would be and just replied to Adam's letters, their lives would have both been very different. As it turns out, she must live with the consequences of epistolary neglect for ever. Learn from Fiona's mistake, and never leave a letter which beckons to your conscience, unanswered.