20 September 2018

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Let me preface this entire review by saying this was my favourite read of the year so far. It is so, so, so good. If you'll remember, I ordered this on a whim after researching the story for our post on last year's TIFF adaptations. I'd read McEwan's On Chesil Beach and didn't love it (although I do think I was too young for the content and now desperately want to go back), but figured I would give this a try because I loved the premise. If you follow the blog regularly you know I've been feeling pretty 'meh' about the last few books I've read and this was the perfect piece of fiction I needed to get me excited about reading again. I loved the story but I also surprisingly loved McEwan's detailed and sophisticated writing style. For those of you who aren't huge readers, the movie adaptation is soon to hit theatres so it's your lucky day.

The story follows a family court judge named Fiona as she decides a case for a 17 and a half year old boy whose parents are refusing a necessary blood transfusion to treat his leukemia because he's a Jehovah's Witness and it's against their religion. The boy himself also doesn't want the treatment, but the hospital has taken them to court as the boy is not yet an adult and can't decide for himself, and the medical staff don't think his parents have his best interests in mind. This is the epigraph to the novel which is I thought was cool:

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 1(A), The Children Act, 1989

There is a lot to unpack in this case and it really all boils down to the questions we've always had about freedom of religion. Can the boy really decide what's best for him when he's been raised to think God will reject him if he takes someone else's blood? Does the court get to decide whether or not citizens get to act as per God's wishes? At what point do we let people die in the name of God? Is there a life worth living if you've betrayed your God? It was crazy interesting to me to read as Fiona decided what was best for the boy, not just from a health standpoint but a mental and social one as well. As a judge, she's given all sorts of criteria to try and make the decision as objective as possible, to use facts over judgement, but in the end, she still just has to decide if the boy's life is more important than his religion.

On top of that, Fiona is dealing with conflict in her own marriage. Her long-time husband has come right out and asked her if he can have "one last passionate affair" before he gets too old to enjoy it. He goes on to suggest it's been a while since they've been intimate and even though he loves her, he wants to pursue his sexual needs elsewhere and he wants her permission. I didn't really know what to make of this as a reader... it seems like an almost respectable request at first glance. Reading it through Fiona's perspective, however, it becomes clear that the mere fact that he's asked has damaged their marriage. Despite the fact that she'd never agree to it, knowing he wanted to was the worst of it. It's amazing because as females we go on and on about honesty and how we just want our significant others to "tell us how they feel", but what we really mean is "tell us how you feel as long as it's the way we want you to feel". Everything else is pure devastation.

Margaret fucking Atwood chillin with Ian McEwan

At the very beginning of the book they get in a big fight about this and he ends up walking out. Fiona then proceeds to decide on this court case, all the while wondering if her husband is having an affair, if he'll come home, and how she'll respond if does. She wants him to return but she feels stupid for wanting it. She wants to call her friends and fall apart but she doesn't want them to know in case they judge her in the chance he comes home and she lets him. I don't know how he managed being a male and all, but I feel McEwan wrote the most realistic female reaction imaginable. I could understand what Fiona was feeling the entire way and I'm confident it's how I would also feel.

She could have phoned one of three friends, but she could not bear to hear herself explain her situation and make it irreversibly real. Too soon for sympathy or advice, too soon to hear Jack damned by loyal chums. Instead, she passed the evening in an empty state, a condition of numbness."

One of the more interesting parts of the story is Fiona's perspective on children as a family court judge. I've literally never thought of family court, I've never been, I've never known anyone who's been, and I pray I never have to go because god does it sound awful. The lengthy passage below was too good not to share in entirety and I think paints a nice picture of how jaded you must feel about having a family after years as a family court lawyer then judge:

One neglected domestic items were bitterly fought for, once easy trust was replaced by carefully worded 'arrangements.'... And the children? Counters in a game, bargaining chips for use by mothers, objects of financial or emotional neglect by fathers; the pretext for real or fantasized or cynically invented charges of abuse, usually by mothers, sometimes by fathers; dazed children shuttling weekly between households in co-parenting agreements, mislaid coats or pencil cases shrilly broadcast by one solicitor to another; children doomed to see their fathers once or twice a month, or never, as the most purposeful men vanished into the smithy of a hot new marriage to forge new offspring. And the money? The new coinage was half-truth and special pleading. Greedy husbands versus greedy wives, maneuvering like nations at the end of a war, grabbing from the ruins what spoils they could before the final withdrawal. Men concealing funds in foreign accounts, women demanding a life of ease, forever. "

When all of the drama happens with Jack, Fiona thinks back on their navigating their decision not to have kids. She explains they were very ambitious with work, they wanted to be 'ready', eventually it got too late, they thought of adoption, etc. and she doesn't express any remorse over their decisions until Jack leaves, and she wishes she had kids to help her through it. 

And so here was her punishment, to face this disaster alone, without sensible grown-up children, concerned and phoning, downing tools and rallying round for urgent kitchen-table conferences, talking sense into their stupid father, bringing him back."

Stanley Tucci and Emma Thompson as Jack and Fiona in the film adaptation by the same name

As I mentioned, this book has been adapted into a movie that played at TIFF last year. It's meant to circulate mainstream theatres in the next few weeks and I'm itching to see it. Emma Thompson plays Fiona and Stanley Tucci plays Jack- two castings that never really fail. McEwan also wrote the screenplay which I think is very cool and will make the movie more true to the book.

I really, really loved this book. I think it would appeal to a wide audience as it's not super romantic nor is it super dramatic but it's an incredibly interesting topic. It's got really strong characters with really relatable emotions and touches on themes like marriage and children that I love to read about. I'm ready to go on an Ian McEwan binge now and feel a bit sad about the time I wasted thinking I didn't like him because I stupidly read On Chesil Beach when I was like 10 and didn't even know what sex was...

1 comment:

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