Displaying the economical style of his novels Amsterdam and On Chesil Beach, in his 13th novel best-selling author Ian McEwan upends the life of a respected judge with two crises—one personal, one professional—to create a penetrating character study.

Fiona Maye prides herself on being the kind of jurist who “brought reasonableness to hopeless situations” in the Family Proceedings Court of London’s High Court. But what she isn’t prepared to confront on the verge of turning 60 is her husband Jack’s request for permission to engage in an affair with a woman young enough to be his daughter, his self-help remedy for the “slow decline of ardour” in their childless marriage.

With her personal life in turmoil, Fiona is assigned the case of Adam Henry, a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness suffering from leukemia who has declined, on religious grounds, the blood transfusion that may save his life. Beginning with Fiona’s visit to Adam’s hospital room, McEwan fashions a completely plausible relationship between these two characters, using it to explore the demands of faith and to portray a young man groping toward maturity.

Though there’s little inherent drama in the daily work of a judge, McEwan succeeds in bringing Fiona to life as she works with integrity and efficiency to decide, in another case, whether to permit the separation of Siamese twins, knowing that doing so will be a death sentence for one of them. The equally fateful choice she faces in weighing whether to order Adam’s transfusion, like much of her work as a judge of family disputes, inevitably is refracted through the lens of her knowledge that she will never have children of her own.

The novel’s other plot line—the intricate marital dance that ensues after Jack’s stunning announcement—is handled with the same assuredness. A scene in which McEwan describes the tension between husband and wife using the almost imperceptible movement of a coffee cup is a masterpiece of dramatic writing.

Despite its subject matter, The Children Act doesn’t simply capitalize on a controversial issue to build artificial suspense. Instead, the pleasures of this quiet novel flow from McEwan’s keen judgment of human character and his ability to translate it so deftly that through his characters we can see ourselves with new eyes.


This article was originally published in the September 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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