Book Review: The Children Act

In his latest novel, “The Children Act,” Ian McEwan pulls off a difficult feat. He manages to write well about complex and controversial topics without turning the work into a so-called “issues book.” The author of “Atonement”’s lovely and poignant prose comes as no surprise, but, with impressive ease, he is also able to weave questions about religion and personal choice into the text without sacrificing plot or character development.

“The Children Act” opens as Fiona Maye, a prominent High Court judge in London, is called to try an urgent case: Adam, a teenager suffering from a rare form of leukemia, is refusing a possibly life-saving blood transfusion on religious grounds. He is a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and so are his parents, who support his decision. However, Adam is a few months shy of his 18th birthday. Given that he is still a minor, the hospital has asked the court to override his wishes and order that he submit to a blood transfusion. McEwan’s depiction of the resulting trial, the meeting between Fiona and Adam and the aftermath is a fascinating look at the intersection between law, faith and adulthood. Adam, Fiona and, to a slightly lesser extent, Adam’s parents are fully realized characters, and McEwan effectively conveys their inner conflicts without relying on tired stereotypes.

The subplot about the possible unravelling of Fiona’s marriage is less effective. Fiona’s husband is rather pathetic and one-dimensional, and his repeated wish to have an affair and “live while he still can” seems boring and selfish when juxtaposed with the main storyline. Perhaps this was McEwan’s intention, but these sections only bored me and made me flip ahead to see how many pages were left before the novel got back to Adam’s story.

“The Children Act,” though short, is not an easy book to read, but it is a fascinating one. It calls on the reader to look inward and more deeply examine their own thoughts and prejudices, and to question how far they would go in the name of faith. Though the book takes place in England, the questions it raises about the intersection of religion and law are also relevant to American readers, particularly in these times of hotly contested reproductive and marriage rights. It is a quietly moving story that will linger in your mind for a long while.