The Children Act (2014), by Ian McEwan


What exactly had troubled her?

–Narrator’s Question about Fiona Maye, in The Children Act

This question–the Question of questions in McEwan’s novel–is answered most dramatically for his heroine, Fiona Maye, a still-fetching middle-aged High Court judge in today’s London and ruling on child welfare cases, that answer revealed through a superbly understated and controlled  narrative which is intended to carry you unerringly and with a dismaying sense to accepting a traditional, brutal literary naturalism updated for our times. McEwan, as always, dramatizes Bad News: we are futile actors of a darkened intellect and a weakness of the flesh whose floundering lives dramatize ironic futility in the face of forces, often invisible, against which actually we have no chance of prevalence. The old saying that we are our own worst enemies is a half-truth: we’re self-defeating but it’s nothing to become egotistical about:  we’re merely in a happenstance situation “rigged” against us and in which our behavior itself is ultimately a dooming joke we don’t really get.  “Rigged” rather than rigged because, when you get down to it, the forces are impersonal. There is no one beyond us to care about us.

Philosophical and literary Naturalism, pure and simple.

So: The Trouble with Fiona is the trouble with us all. It’s the Trouble with the World. Yes, McEwan’s fictional world is nothing but trouble. In it redemption is no more real than unicorns. Biology, anthropology and cosmology are all secular and impersonal latter day components of a Grand Surround: by definition, there is no way around it.

The artistic response of McEwan is to fashion beautiful, masterful narratives in which his revenge is a defiantly accurate rendering of our hopelessly Bad Fortune: if we can’t overturn the forces, at least we can expose them; we can be aware; we can thus be tragic rather than merely innocent, let alone stumbling around ever as Blind Fools. Says McEwan and out of a demanding, triumphant art created to make us Knowing: Damned if we must be fools.

McEwan’s literary skill is a joy to behold. See how he dramatizes “What exactly had troubled (Fiona)?”

First, he makes her an exemplar, an estimable exponent of the essence of the Enlightenment, that promising miracle of civilization, that brave fortress in savage history. Specifically, the moral and expert Fiona is at home in the world of great jurists of the past who formed principles to rule favorably in cases of child welfare. The problem of Child Welfare–what could be more central and engaging in Enlightened thinking, especially given modern humanistic ideas about children? And so, now a prominent judge, she must decide the most urgent cases, for example, concerning separation of Siamese twins (named “Matthew” and “Mark” by the artful and rather nasty Ironic, McEwan) in which one will survive and without which both will die, the latter outcome favored by the traditionally religious parents and their community; custody of children in which wealthy care in a traditionally stifling culture must be traded off against somewhat precarious upbringing in which the child enjoys greater freedom in a rapidly changing world; and saving medical operations for otherwise terminally ill children of parents who are Jehova’s Witnesses determined to allow their children to die.

Second, the childless Fiona will be troubled when we first meet her. Something about her Child Welfare cases has begun to disturb her. She is losing her sense of physicality. Her husband, Jack, a fifty-nine-year-old “professor of Ancient History” (mark that well as McEwan’s Naturalistic-theme-reinforcing assignment of a profession), is threatening an extramarital affair with a young stenographer because Fiona seems to have lost interest in sex. Jack is pretty much an ordinary chap. He stays in good shape with daily hoisting of light weights in his office. He likes to ski. Although he and Fiona are childless, he’s great with their visiting neices and nephews–he delights them by goofing off with them without a thought about their psychology and mental stages of growth: he’s a natural.

McEwan is a great compressor of complexities. Here, in a passage that beautifully sends up a poetic Naturalism and goes far in making us feel the Why and What of Fiona’s Trouble, is a superb example similar to several others in The Children Act:

At nights her thoughts returned to that photograph of the (Siamese) twins and the dozens of others she had studied, and to the detailed technical information she had heard from medical specialists on all that was wrong with the babies, on the cutting and breaking, splicing and folding of infant flesh they must perform to give Mark a normal life, reconstructing internal organs, rotating his legs, his genitals and bowels through ninety degrees. In the bedroom darkness, while Jack at her side quietly snored, she seemed to peer over a cliff edge. She saw in the remembered pictures of Matthew and Mark a blind and purposeless nullity. A microscopic egg had failed to divide in time due to a failure somewhere along a chain of chemical events, a tiny disturbance in a cascade of protein reactions. A molecular event ballooned like an exploding universe, out onto the wider scale of human misery. No cruelty, nothing avenged, no ghost moving in mysterious ways. Merely a gene transformed in error, an enzyme recipe skewed, a chemical bond severed. A process of natural wastage as indifferent as it was pointless. Which only brought into relief healthy, perfectly formed life, equally contingent, equally without purpose. Blind luck, to arrive in the world with your properly formed parts in the right place, to be born to parents who were loving, not cruel, or to escape, by geographical or social accident, war or poverty. And therefore to find it so much easier to be virtuous.

The Children Act culminates in Fiona’s intervening in a judicial case to save a seventeen-year-old boy, Henry, from death owing to the denial of medical treatment by the parents, Jehova’s Witnesses, Henry’s certain death being tragically favored as well by the obedient boy. Fiona’s is a triumph of humanistic civilization, an Enlightened response to superstition. She eminently does The Right Thing.


After masterfully instilling that sense of Fiona as an Eminent Civilized, McEwan stages his crushing final act, the Prevalence of Naturalism over even the Enlightenment. Not to play the Spoiler, let me say that after Fiona imparts to Henry the virtues of Enlightened ideas of the individual–The End in many stories–a dreadful final chapter plays out in which Henry is neither saved nor Fiona allowed to triumph in a cause of the Rational. Neither is at fault. Fiona will, you are certain, be haunted by her awful lesson in the Naturalistic Vale of Tears.

How would you do up against The Children Act?  I’m betting McEwan will lose his case with you. He pleads it beautifully with an understated, superbly selective, austerely beautiful literary art. He tries to disturb you with a gorgeously formed story. He wants it to be a revelatory experience. A Conversion.  And out of the novels making their way into these times, this is one to experience.

A good test.