Written by Victoria King

Arts

Toranory: The Children Act

Are you sitting comfortably? Then Victoria King would like to explain why she’s beyond chuffed to have discovered Ian McEwan, particularly this edge-of-the-seat legal drama.

Pile of booksIan McEwan is described as one of the finest writers alive but, for whatever reason, he wasn’t on my radar, so neither were his 14 novels and two anthologies of short stories. Picking up 2014’s The Children Act, I was simply hooked by the cover blurb: medicine versus religion with the law balancing the scales? Yes please.

Step forward leading lady Fiona Maye, a high court judge working in the Family Court, highly respected and known for her sharp intellect and precision. She’s married to her profession, and her private life is not as successful; her faltering marriage and the emptiness she feels at never having children act as a shadow to the main storyline.

The first part of the book runs through the daily hectic life of a judge. We watch the crumbling of her marriage as her husband requests permission to find solace in the arms of a younger colleague. It’s painful reading. Fiona finds it difficult to replicate the same sensitivity and passion in her private life she delivers with ease in her professional one. She sees herself as a failure and the same as everyone else. You can feel her loss and frustration; it pours from the page.

“I believe there is no stronger argument than medicine saving a life against respecting someone’s religious beliefs and wishes – and it doesn’t get any more gut-wrenching than McEwan’s tale.”

Distraction comes when she’s called to try a very urgent case, that of 17-year-old Adam, who is refusing medical treatment that could save his life. Despite dealing with difficult and heartrending cases on a daily basis, this one is different, especially in how it affects Fiona: she wants to save this boy, a feeling of guilt for the child she never had.

Adam is a devout Jehovah’s Witness, as are his parents. With every passing hour his chances diminish. As the judge hears both sides of the argument, it feels like you’re a witness in the court, watching this very real emotional situation play out: the power of faith against the science of medicine with the law as arbitrator.

By this point I was shouting at the book for Fiona to visit Adam. She does, and it’s a decisive point in the story. The emotional and intellectual connection they develop from this one visit affects both in a way I didn’t expect. This passage made me think of those few times when you meet someone and you have an instant affinity with them, you feel like you have known them ages or known them before: where the connection is more powerful than just chemistry. Fate? Who knows.

The Children Act coverIt’s edge-of-the-seat stuff and I was almost holding my breath waiting for her verdict. The legal references within her verdict are current, so much so that I almost forgot I was reading fiction and not a documentary judgement (although that makes it sound a bit dull, which couldn’t be further from the truth).

As I have not read any of McEwan’s other books I can’t do a comparison. What I do know is that I love a legal argument where the law isn’t a disappointment. I believe there is no stronger argument than medicine saving a life against respecting someone’s religious beliefs and wishes – and it doesn’t get any more gut-wrenching than McEwan’s tale.

The Children Act is a gripping and emotional read. The shadow story of Fiona’s home life highlights details of what is going on in the foreground of the case. Fiona is a considered and strong woman, and I admired her immensely by the end. Along with the determined but still childlike Adam, for whom I had a bucketful of empathy, these characters made this one of the most intelligent and poignant books I’ve read in a long time.

If you like a real-life argument where there is no right or wrong, yet the law must still decide, grab a copy of The Children Act. I will be trawling the bookstores for more McEwan in the future as he seems to guarantee a passionate, thought-provoking read.

Next time I’ll be reading Gray Mountain by John Grisham.

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Written by Victoria King

Victoria is working on her first book. She is also a flag-waving survivor of Crohn’s Disease. And she loves a Mr Whippy.