The Children Act by Ian McEwan, book review: Not as good as Atonement, but what modern novel is?

Though not itself perfect, his eighth novel embodied a high-water mark in modern (and Modernist) fiction

How is it possible, you may ask, for Ian McEwan to not make the Booker long-list?

The Children Act, his 13th novel, is very much in the same vein as Saturday in that it concerns the confluence of the life of a member of the professional elite – a judge rather than a surgeon, this time – with that of the less fortunate. This is a brave and enormously interesting subject, given the deepening gulf between rich and poor, not just in terms of income but of power.

McEwan’s heroine, Fiona Maye, is a childless High Court judge living in the refined enclaves of Gray’s Inn Road in London. Distinguished, admired and a gifted amateur pianist, her professional success at adjudicating exquisitely difficult cases in the Family Courts is under-cut by Jack, her husband of 30 years, telling her that the lack of sex in their marriage has driven him to want an affair with a younger woman. On the same day, she has to make a decision about whether to order a life-saving blood transfusion for a 17-year-old boy, Adam, who is a Jehovah’s Witness. Fiona decides that the only way she can tell whether the boy is mature enough to make his own decisions, is to visit him in hospital during the critical hours before his decline is too advanced to be arrested.

As in Saturday (and the dismal Amsterdam), McEwan’s approach to his chosen professional arena is immersive. Fiona’s gift for razor-sharp precis merges well with the novelist’s own – so much so that, at 213 pages, the novel is half the length it might have been. The effect of this gives the novel not just a prevailing sense of interiority, but a shut-down quality in which the messier textures of human intercourse we expect in realist fiction are not allowed to breathe – appropriate in that this is something that Adam will experience with leukaemia. Yet it is McEwan’s fidelity to particularising the general and generalising from the particular which makes him so absorbing, and even though the plot has a formulaic aspect which might have come straight from HBO’s The Good Wife, he does not disappoint, largely because his unostentatious, plate-glass prose gives us the illusion of looking into rather than at his character’s lives. Has Adam been brainwashed by his parents’ religion or does he, like many teenagers, have a Romantic conception of death? Kindly, subtle, scrupulous, Fiona’s secular intelligence must go into combat with superstition and ignorance before she can use her power as a judge.

The central scene, in which Fiona teaches Adam the words of Yeats’s poem “Down by the Salley Gardens” to the Irish air he has just taught himself to play on the violin is where the characters are allowed to expand, clashing and sparking off each other. It is beautifully done, not least because any reader obsessed by music will long ago have recognised a kindred spirit in McEwan. Here, both the poem and the music turn Adam from one course of action to another; yet art can’t save him. Only love can.

Fiona is beautifully drawn, so much so that one often has the sense of meeting one’s own thoughts and feelings. Frequently accused of failing to depict the opposite sex accurately (his preposterous notion that a woman might avert rape by reciting “Dover Beach” in Saturday has become a feminist joke) his heroine’s ambition, honesty and workload are here all treated with understanding and respect. However, the concept that a woman might genuinely feel fulfilled by being childless is not, and ultimately, this makes it underpowered and unoriginal. It is clear from the start that the “goals towards which a child might grow … having at the centre of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love” is something Fiona has, novelettishly, let slip. With his beauty, youth, energy and talent, Adam moves her because of this vacuum. Is he the son she never had, or the love of life she has let slip? 

McEwan’s attentiveness to shades of meaning in his titles may make one note that The Children Act lacks the possessive apostrophe. There is a play on the world “act” (Fiona’s words have an impact on real lives) and the way individual children lack power, despite the stated intent of the Act to put a child’s welfare first.

In short: this novel is not as good as McEwan’s Atonement, but what modern novel is? Though not itself perfect, his eighth novel embodied a high-water mark in modern (and Modernist) fiction; The Children Act, with its sly allusions to many of the author’s own past works, seems inferior only when comparing this to his own oeuvre – and to his contemporaries’.

Amanda Craig’s latest novel, Hearts and Minds, is published by Abacus, £8.99.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine