The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Belief in the law

CHRISTINE EMMETT reviews The Children Act, an elegant but ultimately unsatisfying new novel by Ian McEwan


A few weeks ago, Richard Dawkins, self-anointed spokesperson of atheism and science, responded to a query on twitter as to what one of his followers should do if she found herself pregnant with a baby that she knew would be born with Down’s syndrome. Dawkins, in his rather blunt fashion, responded on twitter saying “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have a choice.” Predictably, this statement caused a furor across the internet. The callousness with which Dawkins had responded to this inquiry suggested a disdain for human life and a bloated sense of self-importance. Considering, in Dawkins’ defense, that responding on twitter to issues of life and death could only ever be perceived as callous, the issue itself depends directly on our beliefs around the significance and value of human life.

The idea about the intrinsic worth of human life is primarily a religious one. If most religions are centrally concerned with the sanctity of human life then they also tend to have rules in place for the preservation and safe-guarding of humanity. In scientific terms though, one life lost will not hamper the human species’ capacity to propagate. In purely secular moral terms, stopping one child from living in a debilitating condition could very well be one way of avoiding harm or injury. If these scientific tenets seem startling or crude, it is purely because similar arguments have often been used to justify mercy killings and eugenics – instances against which the legal system has been tailored to protect us.

Thus, aren’t we lucky that the law is there in the predominantly secular Western world to safeguard the individual where religion is no longer able to. But consider then, the instances where religion and the law clash. Fiona Maye, the protagonist of McEwan’s new novel, The Children Act, and a British high court judge, presides over these cases every day. As the title of the novel suggests, Fiona is a judge in the Family Division and primarily deals with family law. In this position she is forced to call judgment upon the fate of children – and thus, symbolically the future of the country.

Fiona’s portfolio doesn’t solely consist of clashes between religion and the secular state, but these contestations are certainly the ones which McEwan highlights within the novel. Consider this case – siamese twins, yoked together from birth: “Their spinal cords and the base of their spines were fused, their eyes closed, four arms raised in surrender to the court’s decision.” One is weak and dependent on the other’s pumping heart. One twin is strong and supporting both bodies. Medical science suggests that, seeing as both children cannot survive in this state, the weaker infant should be ejected so that the stronger twin may live. But because the parents are Catholic and hold a strict reverence for the value of life in their doctrine, they refuse that the separating operation should be performed.

Clearly one is aware what would be the reasonable solution to this situation, and indeed this is what Fiona sees as her job – to decide what is “reasonable and lawful” – and this quality, “reasonableness”, is what Fiona Maye hopes to maintain in her profession and in her life.

But as we know, people are seldom reasonable. The novel opens, if not with an unreasonable request, then certainly with an unreasonable situation. Having been living in a sexless though comfortable marriage for the last few years, Fiona’s husband approaches her about having one last tryst with a young woman at his work. His claim seems reasonable enough: he will have one –and his only– torrid affair, after which he and Fiona will settle back into their comfortable marriage, seeing in old age together. But understandably, Fiona’s response strays from the lines of reasonableness, and amidst arguments and ultimatums, she locks her husband out of their central London apartment.

It’s under these particular pressures that she takes on a particularly unorthodox role in the case upon which she is presiding. The case, concerning one 17 year old child named Adam, concerns his need for a blood transfusion, following a treatment for leukemia. The situation is transparent – without the blood transfusion, he will die. The problem though, is that he and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and under their religious doctrine they may not adulterate their blood by receiving transfusions.

Having to decide whether the court will force the transfusion upon this child, Fiona decides to visit Adam and assess his understanding of the situation at hand. It’s this encounter which will provide the dynamics for the rest of the novel. For, if as Fiona considers, it’s her duty to ensure that he “be protected from his religion and from himself”, what are the ramifications of this imposition of secular laws? How does one orientate life outside of the confines of religious authority? And is she prepared to take responsibility both for her decision in the matter and for the personal contact she makes with Adam?

In this way, religion and the law seem to be presented as opposing forces. But this opposition is also slyly degraded throughout the novel, as Fiona, the embodiment of the law, is often described in religious terms – having “godly distance,” and “devilish understanding”. Her dedication to impartiality also renders her emotionally stinted, something which is perfectly conveyed by McEwan’s clipped and precise prose. Hiding behind the law that she so often imposes, Fiona is presented as sexless and barren — “she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ”. If Fiona resembles a nun, then she is equally vampiric, feeding off the conflict she adjudicates.

But still, even if the law and religion are closer than one might initially think, McEwan’s representation of religion seems rather limited. Within the framework of this novel, McEwan primarily depicts religion as a number of regulations (like the law) which individuals must follow. There is then little space for acknowledging the other ways in which people make use of religion, which perhaps more and more has little to do with adhering to its rules. Yes, there is some acknowledgement that the law (and thus rules and reasonableness) cannot stand in for all of what religion offers us, but McEwan leaves this point airily open. He gestures towards art as a potentially comforting and liberating replacement, but his incapacity to represent religion as anything more than a governing set of rules stops us from getting a clear grasp of what is actually at stake.

Another fault lies in the limitations of Fiona’s elite world. It’s necessary to remember that McEwan began his writing career in First Love, Last Rites, The Cement Garden and Black Dogs by focusing on the lives and aspirations of societally marginalised characters. From this perspective it’s hard to take Fiona’s refined, upper-class, central London property-owner world seriously. One gets the sense that McEwan, with all his prestige (as winner of multiple book prizes and the recipient of substantial publishing advances), is surrounded by a very particular grouping of society. This group has allowed him access to the brain surgeons, high-profile lawyers and scientists that have dominated his last three novels – and indeed, he depicts and details these professions with characteristic control and elegance. But perhaps it is this great achievement of “having arrived” that has left his vision slightly myopic, having lost touch with the world outside his social circle.

So here is a scenario: Ian McEwan and Richard Dawkins sit around the table, glasses of Beaujolais wine poised over truffled asparagus soup. Dawkins sips his wine and bemoans the ubiquity of religion and the fact that, as he supposes, “these religious zealots are going to kill us all”. McEwan assents, but lowering his spoon into his soup, helpfully points out that art has the capacity to save us. Perhaps he stops to quote a line of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. Conversation totters on.

Perhaps Mr McEwan needs to frequent more interesting dinner parties.

The Children Act is published by Jonathan Cape and is available from



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