In The Children Act, Ian McEwan explores the nature of two conflicting choices: emotion and duty. As a ubiquitous part of contemporary life he uses the backdrop of the courts and his protagonist’s marital life to draw us to a somewhat paradoxical conclusion. If the craft of writing is indeed excavation rather than creation as Stephen King says in his fantastic memoir, On Writing, then all that seems to be available for use in McEwan’s archaeological toolkit are the rudiments of delicacy and precision; the scalpel and the toothbrush rather than the occasional necessary use of the sledge hammer which is lacking in its effect to break the reader’s emotional balance apart and to drag us by the scruff of the neck to the novel’s undoubted pay off at its conclusion.
This novel is delicate. Its prose is, at times, both sophisticatedly understated while also containing pointless magniloquence and indulgence that serves little other purpose than to give McEwan a chance to show off his knowledge of whiskey distillers or the geological structure of Great Britain, amongst other things.
The Children Act is a short novel, but feels like it should be shorter as you wonder how many ways to describe someone sitting down and having a drink can be fashioned by one writer. It didn’t seem to bother Hemingway. Moreover, Kurt Vonnegut’s advice for good writing seems evidenced by contrast in how the reader is made to feel with McEwan’s needless pandering to detail: “Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.”
Nevertheless, the novel does redeem itself by way of the handing of its themes, which need the scalpel’s razor edge to be recovered in one piece. The central protagonist, Fiona Maye, leads a career-based and privileged existence as a High Court judge although, simultaneously, her married life and apparently contented existence disintegrates. The novel pits the demands of ambition and devotion against one another by way of the exposition of rationality versus religion and youth versus experience.
To delineate, the novel is in itself a silently fought, solipsistic fight of Fiona against herself. The eponymous “Children Act” concerns the welfare of the child to be of unsurpassed importance when deliberating on a court decision which affects said child. Fiona has no children and is constrained by the fine legal borders she works under to deliver her justice. Yet, in this charming vignette of a novel, as she approaches the later years of her life and her professional career draws to a close she is put in the situation to address the ever-widening chasms in her life after years of neglect. She must choose one path or another. The novel ends with both death and rebirth and leaves the reader with the tranquil equanimity of knowing at the novel’s conclusion they’re at the same place they started but with a bit more knowledge than when they started.
Let the novel unfold and eventually it offers up its rewards: they are neither melancholy nor joyous, but distinctly resonant and honest.