Thursday, January 22, 2015

"The Children Act": Why have I never read Ian McEwan until now?

It's been awhile since I've read a book that led me to openly debate with my husband in the evenings. I'm embarrassed to admit as an avid book enthusiast that I've never read a book by Ian McEwan before this one which I am pretty sure was on every single "Best Books of 2014" list.  I saw the movie "Atonement," but seeing a movie and reading an author's style do not correlate.  At first I was a bit put off by the stuffy, pretentious quality of the writing (it read more like a movie script to me than a novel), but that quickly dissipated as I worked my way into the daily dilemmas that high court Judge Fiona Maye faced and in particular the case of Andrew, a 17 year old Jehovah's Witness suffering from leukemia whose family refused to give him a blood transfusion based on religious reasons.

In the lead up to this court case, the reader learns that Fiona, age 59, is a judge of impeccable reasoning skills.  She is highly respected in her field and the court cases that she faces - from conjoined twins who must be separated in order to save the life of one even if the devoutly Catholic parents don't want to go against God's will, and divorce settlements involving Jewish parents, often relate in some way to religion.  With each case she hears, she uses sound reason and logic to decide what is best for each child involved using The Children Act (1989) as her guide: "When a court determines any question with respect to . . . the upbringing of a child . . . the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” - SECTION I (A).  

The backdrop of her reason and logic filled days in court is her emotional and personal distress at home as her husband, Jack, seeks her approval to have an affair with a much younger woman.  Fiona is both disgusted and horrified with Jack's request even if he chooses to blame her for his need to stray citing her emotional and physical distance as the main reasons he wants to have a heated love affair with someone else. Their icy relationship drips with tension and betrayal.  Both sides are hurting; in the case of love, logic and reason often don't count.

But the law will not wait for personal problems at home. Andrew's case must be decided almost immediately due to the severity of his cancer and the necessity for a blood transfusion.  In order to get a clearer understanding of his physical condition and his personal wishes, Fiona visits him in the hospital to understand why he and his family are refusing treatment. After this visit, Fiona comes to the conclusion that Andrew's welfare is not the paramount consideration of his family and his church and overrules their denial of the transfusion, forcing Andrew to receive a life saving treatment.

What happens from here both startled and confused me, but the delicacy of the situations presented in the book made me think long after I closed the cover in the evenings, and stayed with me after I finished the book.  I brought up the dilemmas to my husband over dinner and was surprised by his answers. So many questions are presented in this book: Whose fault is the loss of love? Who gets to ultimately make the decision about the welfare of a child? An adult? A relationship? What happens when we are unable to act in the best welfare of a child or ourselves? What role does religion play in our lives? What ultimately gives our lives meaning?

These are big questions and even if the critics agree that this book doesn't fit in the realm of most of McEwan's books, much exists in it's short length that can pose huge life questions without easy answers which make it an excellent selection for a book club (at least a book club that talks about the books they choose).  As a McEwan virgin, I was impressed with his ability to humanize, criticize and stay neutral all at once.  Even with the seeming pretentiousness of the language at first, this book is worth the read, worth the debate, and worth the title of one of the best books of 2014.

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