The Children Act by Ian McEwan

the children actBanal, unconvincing and arrogant…

😦 😦

High Court judge Fiona Maye’s comfortable life is rocked when her husband of many years announces that he would like her permission to have an affair. The poor man has his reasons – apparently he and Fiona haven’t had sex for seven weeks and one day so you can understand his desperation. (Am I sounding unsympathetic? Oh, I haven’t even begun…) This shattering event happens just before Fiona is to preside over a case where a hospital is seeking permission to give a blood transfusion to a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness suffering from leukaemia, over the religious objections of the boy himself, his parents and the elders of his church. In her emotional turmoil over her marriage, Fiona allows herself to become personally involved in the case, throwing her carefully nurtured professionalism to the winds. This is the story of what happens to Fiona’s marriage and to the boy…

His face had been tight as he shrugged and turned to leave the room. At the sight of his retreating back, she felt the same cold fear. She would have called after him but for the dread of being ignored. And what could she say? Hold me, kiss me, have the girl. She had listened to his footsteps down the hall, their bedroom door closing firmly, then silence settling over their flat, silence and the rain that hadn’t stopped in a month.

I have a strange relationship with Ian McEwan’s books. I find his writing style very compelling and occasionally he writes a brilliant book – Atonement, Enduring Love. At other times I find his subject matter banal or designed merely to shock. This one falls into the banal category. He has set out to have a go at religion or, as he likes to term it, supernatural belief, and has chosen a hackneyed plot to do so. The whole idea of whether the state should intervene when a child’s life is at risk because of a religious belief has been debated ad nauseam and McEwan has nothing new or even interesting to say on the subject. But that’s not his purpose anyway. He is really setting out to show how religion is an evil thing from which children require protection. He makes it crystal clear that he believes that children brought up in a faith are really victims of indoctrination and need to be saved – the suggestion hovers unspoken that it is tantamount to a form of child abuse. The central case concentrates on the Witnesses because, of course, they’re an easy target, but he manages to get in criticisms of Jews, Muslims and Catholics too. He openly suggests that the beliefs of Adam’s parents are superficial and that they will be glad if the court overrides them as that will get them off the hook and see them alright with God and their church – and he implies that that superficiality is common to all who profess religious beliefs. In fact, and I speak as an atheist here, his denigration of the sincerity of religious belief left me feeling furious and a little soiled. I find the attitude held by some atheists that theirs is the only possible right answer displays an arrogance greater than that of most religious people of whatever faith.

He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.

Of course, it’s quite possible to disagree vehemently with an author’s point and still find the book to be worthwhile. Certainly this one starts off well. The description of Fiona’s shock at her husband’s request is done well and the story of how their relationship develops from that point has much about it that feels convincing. But McEwan has obviously done a ton of research on how the courts work and on the life of a High Court judge, and he has determinedly shoe-horned it all in at the expense of any sense of forward momentum for large parts of the book. While his descriptions are written well for the most part, sometimes he gives far too much detail of stuff that is both trivial and irrelevant, leaving me impatiently turning pages in the hopes that we might return to the story sometime soon. And while I found the characters of Fiona and her husband believable, I found them both to be cold and rather detached, not just from each other but from life. McEwan suggests that Fiona is realising too late that perhaps she should have made time to have children – largely so she’d have someone to sympathise with her over her husband’s desertion, it would appear. Again I found this banal – wouldn’t it be interesting if just once an author didn’t suggest that a woman can only find fulfilment through breeding? Unsurprisingly the husband didn’t seem to feel the lack of children at all…

Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan

But from a literary point of view it’s the story of the boy, Adam, that’s the real problem. We are told several times that he is mature for his age but, despite having the vocabulary and speaking style of a middle-aged Oxford don, he acts more like a thirteen-year-old adolescent than someone on the cusp of manhood. His reaction to Fiona’s decision left me entirely unconvinced, while his personal reaction to this 59-year-old woman verges on the ludicrous, as does her behaviour towards him. Not only does she behave unprofessionally, which she at least recognises, but her behaviour is inhumane – or perhaps more accurately, unhuman. Adam’s behaviour is manipulated clumsily to make McEwan’s point about the evil effects of a religious upbringing, meaning that he at no point seems like anything more than a cipher. And the ending is so deeply coloured by McEwan’s clear hatred of religion that it has no ring of truth or compassion to it at all.

‘Of course they didn’t want me to die! They love me. Why didn’t they say that, instead of going on about the joys of heaven? That’s when I saw it as an ordinary human thing. Ordinary and good. It wasn’t about God at all. That was just silly. It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids who are making each other miserable and said, Come on, stop all the nonsense, it’s teatime! You were the grown-up.’

Overall, this is one I rather wish I hadn’t read. The quality of the prose is the only thing that raises it above 1-star status, but I feel I’ve had enough of McEwan now. I think he has finally removed himself from my must-read list…

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64 thoughts on “The Children Act by Ian McEwan

  1. Stellar review, FEF! Loved how you put your thoughts down. Imagine a husband saying that to his wife? *laughing* Well, at least he wanted to be honest about the whole matter.

    Funny you reviewed this. I was just hearing a story similar to this (real, I think) on the radio the other few days ago. An interest.

    So…what happens at the end? FEF style, please.


    • Thanks, C-W-W – I thought you might enjoy this rant! *chuckles* Yes, he seemed to feel he should be praised for his honesty…men! Tchah!!

      There’s been a similar story in the news over here this week too, which I’m thankful to say the parents came out best in and the authorities ended up looking silly.

      Well…the boy had a transfusion, but there was a mix-up and he received the blood of a Great White Ape by mistake. This had the unfortunate effect of making him grow an extra pair of arms, but at least that meant he was able to strangle both the husband and wife at the same time…


      • He needed the wolfman to pull out his liver. Yucketh! (How do you say “Tchah” exactly? I’ve been thinking on this.)

        Aha! I bet it was the same story. Well, I guess it mightn’t be. But it possibly is.

        *laughing lots* I think that’s a great turn of events. I’d like some extra arms! And fangs.


        • Yes!! That’s exactly what was wrong with it – not enough monsters! (*laughing* Well…it’s hard to describe, but generally you start by saying ‘Men!’ – then curl your lip contemptuously, and kind of make a rudish type of noise with your tongue and teeth. But it works best in a Scottish accent. And it can be used to describe things other than men of course – sometimes.)

          Yes, possibly. I think this one did make the international news. A wee boy with a brain tumour whose parents took him abroad for treatment? And the authorities went crazy and started arresting people and banging them up in jail and so on – very helpful!

          *laughing* Don’t be greedy! You can have one or the other, but not both!


      • You’re laughing me to scorn now! (You give guys such a bad rap, you know. Think of Schwarz! Well, I still can’t hear it. You’ll just have to do it for me some day.)

        *laughs* Is that the story! A wonder. Sounds interesting. You got to love the authorities. (Do they carry knives over there?)

        Umm…I’ll take the fangs then. Imagine when I smile!


        • No! Really! The book would have been vastly improved by being more Professorish… (But…they deserve it! Except Schwarzy I agree – he’s so different to the normal man…so superior! He’d never hear me say Tchah! ‘cos he’d never do anything to provoke it. But you might hear me say it one day…)

          Yep! When they get it wrong, boy! do they get it wrong! (*chuckling* Who? The authorities? Not usually…)

          *shivers* They won’t interfere with your cashew-eating though, will they?


        • Indeed! In fact if this lot had only had speaks much of the misery could have been avoided, dadblameit! (Awww! But now you’re being so sweet I don’t want to say it to you any more…)

          Only when they visit America… *ducks*

          I wonder if cashews eaten by a vampire turn into vampire-cashews…


        • Yes, communication. It’s such dadblamery, but it’s so important! Most of the time. Unless you’re dealing with a snail. (I’m always sweet!)

          *laughs* I agree! I think I’ll give FEF a ka-bar one day.

          Now, what would vampire-cashews be like?


          • But maybe snails would be less slimy if we paid more attention to their views. (I know! Especially when you’re fluffy…)

            An armed FF – even I’m kinda scared at that idea…

            Bloodthirsty! I’ve never trusted them anyway.


            • It’s odd how unsurprised I am by that! (Aw, shucks! *purrs like a lion who’s just eaten a chocolate-covered wildebeest*)

              Well…if you’re sure. But make sure your accident insurance is up-to-date…

              Hmm… I’d eat cashews and listen willingly if it was you playing the jazz…


  2. I have only read one Ian McEwan novel (Atonement, which I loved. Great movie too) and I was thinking of buying The Children Act to read when I go away next week. But after reading your excellent and thorough review, I don’t feel like picking this one up. Judging from your review, it would be a better book if McEwan had been less heavy-handed in making a point and more open-minded of both sides of the issue.


    • Yes, I prefer when you have to tease out the author’s meaning rather than being hit over the head by a proverbial brick! But as always with these top authors, I’m sure that views will be divided. I’ve already seen some very positive reviews for the book…


  3. FictionFan – Oh, my! So, let me see if I can work this out. You weren’t keen on this, right? Seriously, I can’t honestly say I blame you. Writing style or not, this doesn’t sound at all like a compelling or a thoughtful treatment of an important subject. And when it’s something like religion, I think (perhaps it’s just my opinion) that the author ought to at least make an attempt to be even-handed. Matters of faith are not like scientific theories that can be disproven. And they’re not like mathematical truths (like one of something plus another one of that something equals two of that something). The least an author owes readers is an acknowledgement of that. Harrumph!


    • Haha! How could you tell? 😉 Yes, I do get a little fed up with having opinions hammered into me as if they were unarguable facts. And while most lit-fic has a ‘message’ of some kjind or another, it needs to be considerably more balanced, or at least nuanced, than this to make it an interesting or thought-provoking read.


  4. Oh dear, I had high hopes for this one as the plot does sound interesting, but after your excellent review I’m not so sure… I think I will still read the novel because I’ve enjoyed McEwan’s books in the past (especially the ones you mention in your review – Atonement and Enduring Love) but we shall see! I’ve read quite a few positive reviews of this one in the press, so it was good to read an alternative viewpoint 🙂


    • Yes, I’m sure views will be divided on this, so definitely read it! I was looking at the press reviews after I’d written my own, and they seem to be either praising to the skies or panning for the same reasons as me. I think a lot of it might depend on the reader’s own feelings about the moral questions he raises…


  5. Oh. I’m afraid I haven’t dared read your review, as I know I HAVE to read this. I am a big fan of McEwan’s – except On Chesil Beach – but I know I must see what this brings me, without preconceptions. I may or may not end up thinking ‘if only I’d read FictionFan’s review, or (I hope) I’m so glad I didn’t, so that i started off in neutral.

    Watch this space (or that one) when I’ve finished the Mitchell, which as ever has me marvelling


    • I sometimes love him, sometimes find him a bit bland, and sometimes positively dislike him. But you’ll probably love it! 😉 (Actually it won’t surprise me if you find yourself annoyed for the same reasons as me on this one.)


      • So after I’ve read it I’ll come back and read your review, promise. But of course, unless I do love it it won’t make my blog, so it won’t get a pingy wingy. If I do (love it) I’ll pingy wingy for ‘another view’

        PS IF ‘YES’ how long will WordPress take to show each other as visitors from different countries.

        Mind you, if YES there might be a small stampede, bringing our woolly jumpers with us, due to the prospect of severe listing to the right for almost a lifetime without the far North to prevent that ghastly future (Sorry this probably belongs on your democratic sensation post.)


        • Haha! Yes, I was thinking about that too – map changes etc. I remember at one point Project Fear said we won’t be able to use anymore, so I may be cut off from the Internet…I wonder if we’ll still be allowed to mail letters…

          If you’re going to stampede up, better do it before the vote – according to Mr Fearie Milliband, there’s going to be armed guards along the border (really!). We don’t know if it’s to keep us in or you out…


          • Oh it would definitely be YOUR side of the border to prevent the stampede from the Southrons who believe Better Together means we want to come and join YOU, and get away from little England. Mind you, maybe there will be some Northern dwelling English millionaires going the other way.

            PS I wonder if it’s in recognition of new flags that da Vine was offering Union Jacks (!!!) on flagpoles (wha!!!!!!!) And they all got snapped up on VfA. Utterly bizarre! Mind you, ditto French and Spanish flags also / Basque separation on the cards?


            • Hehe! I wish we had them already to stop all the English politicians arriving tomorrow – do you get the feeling panic is setting in? Oh, I really shouldn’t chuckle…

              I didn’t see the Union Jacks!! Do you think Amazon were smart enough not to offer them to Scots this week? No Saltires?


  6. Woo – another one bites the dust! I’ve disliked everything of McEwan’s (not much) that I’ve read, and, from your review, I doubt this would change my mind. I despise bigots – any kind of bigots.


    • I’ve been about 50/50 between love/hate on his past books, but this one has finally tipped the scale. Some of these authors seem to think that after a while they can write any old tosh and get away with it…


  7. Well… Atonement is one of my favourite books of all time so I was looking forward to reading this one and very disappointed when I wasn’t approved by NG so I feel disappointed but without reading the book. The problem is I know I will have the same issues with this book as you especially about the anti-religion bit and despite it all I had to smile through my tears at that first paragraph. Oh well one less on the TBR.


    • Yes, it was annoying that NG were so late putting out the UK version – I’d already received the book on my Kindle before it was offered on NG. Under the circumstances, just as well though – I doubt the publisher would have enjoyed my review… 😉

      I loved Atonement too, and a couple of others but there’s been plenty of his books I’ve disliked or thought were pretty average too. But this one was so prejudiced it’s put me off him completely, I’m afraid.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Excellent review. I had wanted to read this, I may still I haven’t read all McEwan’ s books though the ones I have I enjoyed. I understand your reservations though regarding his stance on religion,nevertheless an interesting premise.


  9. Great review! I’ve read 2 McEwan novels and hated them both so even though I was intrigued by the synopsis when I saw this one in the bookstore, I had no real desire to read it. Glad to hear I’m not missing out. Like you say, McEwan leaves me feeling soiled.


    • Thanks, Karissa! 🙂 Yes, although I’ve loved a few of his books, this isn’t the first one that’s left me wishing I hadn’t read it. At least he’s moved away from violence in this one, but he’s just replaced it with bigotry. In retrospect, I think I preferred the violence!!


  10. It’ll be a real shame if it strikes me the same way, as I have it on order for the US release next month (I think it is). I like McEwan’s books, mostly; but there are many who don’t. I read an article on McEwan some time ago, I think it was in the New Yorker, where they’d interviewed many of his circle of literary friends. One of them — I think it might have been Amis — was asked which of McEwan’s novels he liked the most, to which he replied after long consideration something like: “The first two hundred pages of Atonement.”

    It’s a great line, of course, and one I’d thought said more about the speaker than the subject (which makes it a great line of dialogue, which figures from a writer). No doubt some would say he had it exactly right.

    I liked The Kindness of Strangers, The Cement Garden to some extent, Atonement surely, and Sweet Tooth much more than I thought I would. Interestingly, Roger B., if I recall it right, hated Atonement but loved The Children Act. Ah, literary fiction . . .


    • Ha! It is a great line, with a lot of truth as regards McEwan – so often the first half of his books is much better than the second. In fact, that’s true of this one too – it’s in the second half that he gets bogged down into endless, if elegantly described, irrelevance.

      I liked The Kindness of Strangers too, and Atonement, and Enduring Love. Sweet Tooth was…OK. A clever trick, but not much more than that. But I’ve hated other stuff, like his short story collection In Between the Sheets, which just seemed designed to shock. My nice side hopes you’ll really enjoy this one – my not-so-nice side hopes you’ll agree with me about it! Especially since I’m confident that Lady Fancifull will be in Roger’s gang… 😉 Either way, I look forward to hearing your opinion…


  11. I was tempted to buy this book today, but you have saved me! I keep waiting for the next Atonement, just like I keep waiting for Michael Cunningham’s next The Hours. You can never be too careful with literary writers. They tend to indulge themselves after a great success.


    • Absolutely! I don’t know how many times I’ve found myself writing a critical review of someone who blew me away with a previous novel. And indulgent is definitely a good way to describe this one…


  12. We disagree here I’m afraid 🙂
    I wouldn’t say I loved this novel but I really liked it. Yes, OK, it is indulgent but I expected it to be.
    I’ve only read McEwan’s more recent works so I wonder if I would enjoy his earlier works.


    • It’s good to disagree though! 🙂

      I’ve liked odd ones throughout his career – not that I’ve read them all – so you might well. Generalising, it seems to me there was much more brutal and quite shocking violence in some of the early ones – he seems to have toned that down quite a bit more recently. But while I’m not usually a huge fan of brutal violence, I felt that those books were a bit less self-indulgent maybe…and of course his prose is always great…


  13. I didn’t mind this as much as you did, and I think it’s because it was such a quick read and I was interested in the legal aspects. But I did end up feeling I should write, “Just read Atonement instead,” in the review, and I in fact tweeted that to Keishon 🙂

    It is cathartic to rant about books, though!

    And on another topic re: monsters, I really liked Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes.


    • Yes, it’s shortness was its one saving grace really! 😉 But not a patch on Atonement in any way, even if I strip out the bits that made me angry!

      That’s interesting ‘cos I’ve seen a review or two that made me think it would be a pretty graphically violent one – but that’s not really you’re cup of tea any more than it’s mine, is it? I may have to investiagte further…thanks for the rec… 🙂


    • Short is good! The difference with this one is that he’s ramming home a message rather than writing a novel – so people’s reaction to the book is undoubtedly going to be affected by their reaction to his message. I haven’t read Solar, but I really hated some of his early short stories, loved some of his books and found other ones pretty average – his quality is so variable, though the prose is always excellent.


    • Well, I really didn’t like it but loads of people seem to be loving it – so don’t let me put you off! I think it depends how the reader feels about the stance he takes on religion, but everyone seems to be agreeing on the high quality of the prose.


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