2015, 224 p.
Like On Chesil Beach which preceded it, this book is quite short and has a similar tremulous, sinking, hold-your-breath feeling about it. It is named for the UK legislation of 1989 the Children Act which rules that “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”.
The child in this case is Adam Henry, just three months short of his eighteenth birthday, who along with his parents, is refusing a blood transfusion rendered necessary by treatment of cancer because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses. The hospital, aware that time is running out, brings the case to the court, where it rests before High Court judge, Fiona Maye.
‘My Lady’ Justice Maye has come before other excruciating moral cases before in her capacity as judge with the Family Division, most particularly a case about the enforced separation of conjoined twins. In deciding this current case under such tight deadlines, she decides to go to the hospital to visit Adam Henry, who she finds to be highly intelligent, articulate and engaged. McEwen really knows how to built the tension as he reports her long-winded finding to the court, just as it would have been experienced by the gallery filled with family and journalists.
At the same time that professionally Fiona Maye is dealing with this, her own personal life is unravelling. After a long marriage with both partners working, her husband Jack announces that he wants to have an affair, now that the spark has gone from their marriage. She is hurt, furious and ashamed. She has seen many ruptured families in her professional life, but somehow felt aloof from all that.
A professional life spent above the fray, advising then judging, loftily commenting in private on the viciousness and absurdity of divorcing couples, and now she was down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide (p.49)
It’s only a small book, and I don’t want to give too much away. At heart is the question of how much responsibility Fiona has for Adam’s wellbeing both professionally and personally.
Adam’s case is just one in a long professional life, and I felt that McEwan turned too didactic in his backgrounding of the other cases she had heard. It felt clunky and contrived. The ending is not as I expected it to be, and could perhaps be seen as a letdown. I didn’t see it that way, however. I don’t believe in karma, and there is often no symmetry or fairness in consequences. The book has the same chilliness that many of McEwan’s books express, while dealing with pain and regret. Somehow it seems a very English combination.
I read this for my bookgroup, and it was my choice from about two years ago. It has taken some time for us to receive it! As it happened, we read it in November, just as the film was on general release.
My rating: 8.5
Read because: CAE bookgroup