By Ian McEwan -There may be a reason justice is blind, and, in this novel, a woman. Fiona Maye is a British High Court family division judge who must decide, Solomon-like, some of the more wrenching issues of our time. How to proceed when an Englishwoman fears her five-year-old daughter will be spirited away to Morocco by her strict Muslim father, then is? What to do when a pair of conjoined twins must be separated or both will die, but if they are separated, one will surely die? The hospital urgently wants to separate them, but the devoutly Catholic parents refuse to sanction murder. Everyone in reach of the news media has an opinion about these cases, but only Fiona’s counts. She must be blind to distractions, keeping uppermost The Children Act of 1989, “which declares in its opening lines for the primacy of the child’s welfare.”
The Lord Chief Justice describes her as a woman with “Godly distance, devilish understanding, and still beautiful.” But that’s insufficient on the home front. Fiona’s husband has announced his desire to have an affair with a much-younger woman and doesn’t see why that should disrupt their marriage. Fiona’s legendary dispassionate judgment counts for nothing in this situation and is replaced by pure emotion. She throws him out and changes the locks—even though she knows the law wouldn’t back her up in this.
Into her roiling personal situation comes a new case, a 17-year-old son of Jehovah’s Witnesses has contracted a severe leukemia that will kill him unless he has a blood transfusion, which his religion disallows. His parents refuse. He refuses, too, though he’s not quite yet at the age of majority, so within Fiona’s purview. The hospital says it can save him. To establish whether the teenager’s views are what has been purported or whether he has been unduly influenced by his parents and church elders, she visits him in his sick-bed, and from there the pavers from Good Intentions Roadworks take over.
The Children Act is relatively short for a novel today, about two-thirds the typical length—“a svelte novel as crisp and spotless as a priest’s collar” says Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles. He also seems to believe it’s about Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it’s larger than that. Its subject is intractable dilemmas, hierarchies of belief, and unintended consequences. It is the unnavigable intersection between law and blind faith. So there we have it: faith and justice, each blind to the other, fighting primacy, blood everywhere on the ground.
McEwan is a beautiful writer, with a compelling yet accessible style, even for the weighty issues explored here. This is a portion of his simple, vivid description of Adam Henry, the boy needing the transfusion: “It was a long thin face, ghoulishly pale, but beautiful, with crescents of bruised purple fading delicately to white under the eyes, and full lips that appeared purplish too in the intense light. The eyes themselves looked violet and were huge.”
McEwan gives us realistic characters grappling with significant problems that require them to probe every inch of their humanity and interrogate every motivation. Something to both think about and feel. And when I reached the end, I had to wonder whether he meant the last word of the book’s title as a noun, or in Adam Henry’s case, is it a verb?