Ian McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act (2014), seems to be carried more than anything by familiar details, or McEwanisms, despite the story unfolding amongst several ethical minefields. The overarching science versus religion debate that has appeared in many of his recent novels is again front and centre: Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, must decide whether to allow doctors to provide life-saving treatment to a Jehovah’s Witness teenager, against his wishes. She must focus solely on the welfare of the child - “This court takes no view on the afterlife,” her judgement notes - and McEwan uses this limitation to personalise the conflict. The story is more an exploration of Fiona’s relationship with the boy, than a meditation on science and religion. Here McEwan departs from the approach taken in Saturday (2005), in which a neurosurgeon mostly thinks to himself about the perils of religion on a global scale, after witnessing the apparent downing of a plane by terrorists, which turns out to be merely an accident. The deepest he allows Fiona to wade into the debate here, apart from the side she inevitably takes in her judgement, is a paragraph in which she spirals into a kind of postmodern paralysis, where “religions, moral systems, her own included,” are like “peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a great distance, none obviously higher, more important, truer than another”.
Whether this partial retreat from writing a ‘novel of ideas’ has anything to do with McEwan’s choice of a female protagonist is an interesting question, but he does generally handle the gender challenge well. The other major theme which, like the science and religion question, does little to carry the novel, is the tension between professional and personal lives. Apart from Fiona’s relationship with the teenager, Adam, the narrative is driven by the breakdown of her thirty year marriage to a history professor, Jack. One of the fault lines in their relationship is its failure to produce any children - mostly a result of the two workaholics putting it off, not finding the time. Fiona’s professional success as the ultimate guardian of countless children in the family court is set against her failure to rear any of her own, let alone, now, maintain a stable domestic life of any kind. This idea of contrasting the two domains sometimes appears in the novel too overtly, as though McEwan never got around to turning it into writing: “She thought her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? … She had the power to remove a child from an unkind parent and she sometimes did. But remove herself from an unkind husband? … Where was her protective judge?” That last question reads like a note scribbled as McEwan conceived the idea for the novel, but it may just be Fiona’s self-deprecating expression of the literary potential of her situation.
The personal threatens to derail the professional more severely in what is possibly the most interesting turn in the narrative, when Fiona’s growing attachment to Adam is revealed momentarily to be perhaps something more than motherly. Her fleeting and barely sexual faux pas with the teenager (who has conveniently just turned eighteen) pales in comparison with her husband’s behaviour at the beginning of the novel, when he openly declares that he, who like Fiona is in his sixties, is having a sexual affair with a twenty-eight-year old. While Jack more or less expects his wife to accept his desire for “one last go” at recapturing the “ecstasy” of youth, Fiona is utterly surprised by the ambiguous feelings she barely has time to discover with the young Adam.
McEwan rightly identifies the dogged persistence of sexual double standards, even into the relationships of highly educated liberals, and reminds us how an enlightened intellect is not always enough: “Jack Maye had come of age in the 1970s among all its currents of thought. He had taught in a university his entire adult life. He knew all about the illogic of double standards, but knowing could not protect him. She saw the anger in his face, tightening the muscles along his jaw, hardening his eyes.” What he doesn’t explore is the possibility that Fiona’s failure to be a mother may have something to do with the impulse Adam arouses in her. While McEwans paints both Fiona and Jack as preoccupied with work, a description of “how good Jack was with children” (he reads visiting nieces and nephews bedtime stories with “booming comic energy and a talent for the voices”) does enable a contrasting image of Fiona as somebody who pours her energy into her career, rather than being a parent, and who perhaps is not averse to milking all the sexual pleasure that life has to offer either. This is an identity we attach easily enough to men, as we do with Jack. It feels like McEwan missed an opportunity to explore the difficulty we have attaching it to women, though Fiona’s inability to even articulate a connection between her childlessness and her feelings for Adam may be the kind of silence that speaks louder than words.
In any case, it’s the McEwanisms, the familiar details that could have been worked into any novel, that provide the most enjoyable reading. Many of these extend from his continued focus on the professional classes (in Saturday we spend time with a neurosurgeon, in Sweet Tooth a mathematics graduate who ends up working as an intelligence agent). Sometimes it is simply a way of writing, the use of language humorously too learned for its subjects: “She watched a neighbour’s cat down below pick a fastidious route around a puddle and dissolve into the darkness beneath a shrub”. The earnest nature even of small talk amongst McEwan’s characters is parodied in the way he describes it: “There followed some obligatory conversation about the violent weather. Then, a digression on how people over fifty and all Americans still inhabited a Fahrenheit world. Next, on how British newspapers, for maximum impact, reported cold weather in Celsius, hot in Fahrenheit.” There is the occasional intrusion of the wider contemporary world into their often cloistered professional lives. In one of the most enjoyable scenes, an exhausted Fiona visits a convenience store as she walks home from work at eleven o’clock at night. Ignoring the “garish packaged goods”, she stands weighing up “various fruits in her hand”, before buying them from a “nimble Asian lad working at the till”. Then there are the recollections of youthful sex in not entirely comfortable or private student accommodation, and the description of sex as being like “tumbling backwards” - an image that dates as far back as The Child in Time, published in 1987. There is no female violinist this time, but Fiona plays piano in a classical duo whose performance forms a pivotal scene. And as with the recitation of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ in Saturday, which temporarily suspends the progress of a home invasion, the transformational power of verse is revisited here when Fiona sings a Britten setting of a Yeats poem. The fact that these familiar yet often incidental touches are the highlights in a novel that has ample thematic material to draw on is not a criticism of McEwan, but rather a testament to the renewable pleasure of reading his unique voice.