The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

children actBack in March, I went to hear McEwan talk at the Oxford Literary Festival. He read a couple of passages from the final draft of his manuscript of this novel, which he had literally just delivered to his publisher. From the reading,  I knew it was going to be a fascinating novel.

A McEwan novel is, of course, a big literary event in the UK; in the week before and after publication, he was all over the UK newspaper supplements talking about The Children Act and the real life judges and cases that inspired it. Some of these articles gave rather a lot away about a critical moment in the plot, so you may feel that you know a lot about the book already if you’ve read them, but for those who don’t, let me explain a little – spoiler-free of course…

Fiona, aged 59, is a High Court judge in the Family Division. She is used to having to make the most difficult decisions and is renowned by her peers:

Among fellow judges, Fiona Maye was praised, even in her absence, for crisp prose, almost ironic, almost warm, and for the compact terms in which she laid out a dispute. The Lord Chief Justice himself was heard to observe of her in a murmured aside at lunch, ‘Godly distance, devilish understanding, and still beautiful.’

Shortly after the novel begins, we hear about a particular case she heard that still haunts her. It involved Siamese twins – ‘Not separating them would, by omission, kill both.’ Separating them would kill the weaker one. The parents, staunch Catholics, were overruled. Her elegant ruling made clear the intent – not to kill one, but to save the other. Her credentials are thus established as being a judge of exceptional skill and sensitivity.

She may be a great judge but has had to choose a career over a family to get there. She has a comfortable life in her lovely home, but in the opening pages of the novel, her husband of thirty years, Jack, announces that he can’t go on with their relationship like it is:

‘Didn’t you once tell me that couples in long marriages aspire to the condition of siblings? We’ve arrived, Fiona. I’ve become your brother. It’s cosy and sweet and I love you, but before I drop dead, I want one big passionate affair.’

He has someone in mind too.

Fiona is totally numbed by this and after Jack goes, instead of dealing with things she throws herself even further into her work – which needs her, and this coincides with a new case which forms the main plot of the novel.

A seventeen year old boy with leukaemia, Adam, is refusing potential life-saving medical treatment on religious grounds. He and his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Adam needs a blood transfusion to stop his blood count going fatally low, but his religion won’t allow it. Fiona has to rule on whether to overrule their faith, there are only hours left before it will be too late. Fiona makes a ground-breaking decision to visit Adam in hospital before giving her ruling, the consequences of which will continue to affect them both.

The legal aspects of this fictional case are based on meticulous research and real case-law. You might think that this will make for a dry novel, but it is not so. For the most part, the author distils the essence of what we need to know into the story without making it obtrusive. McEwan knows the family courts intimately, having been through an intense custody battle for his sons when his own first marriage broke up.

There are two key legal items . The first is The Children Act 1989 itself, which makes the child’s welfare the court’s paramount consideration, stated right at the top of the legislation.

The other is the assessment of whether Adam is ‘Gillick competent’ – whether, as still legally a child, he is mature enough to make his own decisions. Incidentally, the term comes from a real case involving the Gillick family, and when it was used in TV series Casualty recently, I was delighted to know what it meant!

The latter third of the novel, which has some slightly melodramatic moments, was not as successful as the previous two which had the dramatic life and death aspects of the court case within.  Whether Adam lives or dies or if Fiona is able to salvage her marriage, I won’t tell you, suffice to say that none of it is simple.

The author describes the work of a judge as one would expect, having watched all those episodes of Judge John Deed, as played by Martin Shaw. Apart from the cases already mentioned, McEwan is able to several discuss other landmark judgements and miscarriages of justice, some of which are recognisable from those reported on the news.  Only once does it come over a bit ranty, when Fiona’s colleague has to let off steam over a particular case.

The choice of choosing a woman of a certain age for the judge in this novel gives added depth to the characterisation of Fiona, and she is what makes the novel a success. I thought that McEwan captured her internal anguish of having chosen a career over a family really well. The numbness in her personal life that Jack’s announcement caused, was, I can tell you, totally believable – I was quite moved by it.

At just over two hundred pages, this novel can easily be read in one sitting, which is what I did, letting myself get totally absorbed into Fiona’s life. The ending, when it came, seemed appropriate and I cried.


Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.

Ian McEwan, The Children Act (Jonathan Cape, London, August 2014) 978-0224101998, 216 pages.

3 thoughts on “The Children Act by Ian McEwan

  1. This book sounds brilliant! I like a book that makes you cry, and it sounds very spare and not too long (I always think that makes a book more effective.) I also think it’s good that McEwan didn’t succumb to the temptation to “over research” and throw too much lovingly garnered fact into the mix, just because it was available, at the expense of the characters.

  2. Margie Patlak says:

    Here in the US this book didn’t get a good review in the New York Times–the reviewer claimed it wasn’t up to snuff–not as good as McEwan’s other books. Being a big fan of McEwan and having read all of his books except his latest, I’m curious how you Annabel and other readers felt it compared to his other books.

    • For me – it’s not his best but it’s far from his worst – which makes it eminently readable and enjoyable. I’ve read most but not all of McEwan’s novels so would put it in the middle somewhere.

      The second half wasn’t as good as the first half with a plot contrivance to add drama, and McEwan having a little rant in one place. What was excellent about it though was the character of Fiona whom I felt I could really identify with. It does appear to give an accurate view of the British legal system in this area too.

      Hope that helps!

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