Whose Life Is It? Playing God in The Children Act

Originally published September 2014

We rarely, if ever, find ourselves making life-and-death decisions for others. Unless you are a doctor, police officer or firefighter. If that’s the case, good on you. I can’t even decide what to eat for lunch today.

So I find it intriguing to dive into a book where the lead character, a High Court judge, does have to choose between life and death. And not just once, but twice. In both cases, with children. Lives barely begun.

In Ian McEwan’s “The Children Act,” Fiona Maye (That’s “My Lady” to you, me and her minions, but not her husband — I’ll get to that) sits in the family division of a bustling British court system, where she typically plays Solomon in divorce case—who gets the kids and when, and how much support is necessary from one ex-spouse to another. The book opens with Fiona completely unnerved by a special request from her husband to be allowed to stray outside the marriage for a lusty affair. Being that they are in late middle age and childless, their comfortable relationship has proven to be a literal snoozefest for her husband, Jack.

How did Fiona allow the marital spark to ebb? She won’t tell Jack, but she tells us—a particularly difficult case in which she was forced to choose. Both in a set of Siamese twin boys would die unless she approved surgery that would surely save one and kill the other. Her decision prompts a steady stream of vitriol that oppose her choice. Think about it—constant reminders of how much you suck will certainly kill any romantic mood. That’s my guess.

It’s at this time, as Jack sows his horny oats, that Fiona is forced to choose between life and death again—this time, for a 17-year-old with leukemia, refusing blood transfusions on religious grounds. His parents, devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, stand beside him as well. And her decision to visit him in the hospital comes at a special price—any disconnect to the decision at hand is eliminated.

What if this were her child? And is this her chance to atone for an earlier choice? What impact does this decision have on her future? You need to read to know. I can only breathe a sigh of relief that I am not in that line of work.

McEwan is best known for “Atonement” which still sits on my bucket list. It’s beautiful prose, but not an easy read. McEwan has a very distinctive writing style that, for example, I just could not stick with in “Saturday.” It’s often long-winded without a break in thought—which truthfully, is how a lot of inner dialogue takes place. In this particular narrative, though, it didn’t bother me as much. Maybe because I really became interested in Fiona’s psyche. And because I convinced myself Adam might off her. Or Jack. So if you have tried him in the past and it wasn’t your cup of tea, this may be the book for you.

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