Ian McEwan is an excavator of moral ambiguities. A best-selling author as well as a literary heavyweight, his novels tend to involve crimes, secrets, and plot twists. In the final analysis, however, McEwan’s plots — some earned him the early moniker Ian MacAbre — usually serve to illustrate and propel his larger questions, not the other way around.
His latest, the finely executed “The Children Act,” is no exception; the novel manages to be highly subtle and page-turningly dramatic at once.
At the center of the novel is Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in London. Not unlike the stereotypes of certain Englishwomen of her class, breeding, and generation, Fiona listens to classical music, plays the piano for fun, drinks good scotch (though not to excess), is respectably married (though childless in order to focus on her prestigious career), and “had not sworn out loud since her carefree teenage visits to Newcastle, though a potent word sometimes intruded on her thoughts when she heard self-serving evidence or an irrelevant point of law.”
Highly intelligent, she is reliable even when emotionally confused, so serves as an ideal sounding board for the novel’s larger themes. Because her personal life gets turned upside down — her husband asks for an open marriage, so that he may pursue a last chance at passion with a younger woman — Fiona is also sympathetic despite being a bit cold and too good to be entirely relatable.
If you aren’t already a McEwan fan, you might not buy this novel based on the back cover summary — which sounds like something from an episode of “Law & Order.’’ That, however, would be an error, because the basic premise — Fiona must rule on a charismatic but underage Jehovah’s Witness’s refusal to have the blood transfusion that will save his life — is merely the bones of the plot of “The Children Act,” not its guts.
It’s impossible to say much more about the plot without spoilers except that, as in McEwan’s other novels, small or sensational details become larger and more complex in his capable hands. The book doesn’t culminate with Fiona’s verdict or its immediate aftermath, but extends further, playing with the butterfly effect of our actions.
Only a master could manage, in barely over 200 pages, to engage so many ideas, leaving nothing neatly answered. McEwan takes on religion with a contemporary sophistication that less grapples with faith and morality a la Graham Greene, and more probes sticky concepts such as the human tendency towards idolatry (of a god, a person, a legal system), and the poetry of a martyr’s death vs. the adventure and risk of personal freedom. He grapples with the paradoxes of lust and the foibles and vulnerability of the human body, with Fiona’s husband longing for “one big passionate affair . . . [e]cstasy, almost blacking out with the thrill of it,” while Fiona thinks that “[n]ot having a body, floating free of physical constraint, would have suited her best.” McEwan also exposes humans as largely driven by shame, showing how what we think of as love or fierce conviction can deteriorate, in almost the blink of an eye, to petty fears for our reputations.
Beneath everything, McEwan interrogates whether the actions of individuals are even significant, set against the transient nature of “the earth’s history” and “the weight of meaningless time.” Someone like Fiona, who, more than most, holds matters of life and death in her hands, has dedicated her entire life to the fine nuances of law and ethics, and she and the reader alike are seduced by Adam, the Jehovah’s Witness teen who, despite his cancer, is bursting with manic creativity, beauty, and youthful possibilities. Yet does his fate ultimately matter in the slightest — does Fiona’s marriage, her sense of justice, her wisdom? Does Art? And then (when the intellectual answer is surely “no”), McEwan half-dares us to detach from such interests, illustrating the consequences of observing — rather than investing in — the lives of others.
“The Children Act” is a novel of how the biggest, most unsolvable ideas impact individual lives. It’s somehow painted quietly and dramatically at once, on a canvas both miniscule and vast. Many readers will enjoy it for the high stakes plot, but McEwan devotees will see in its pages his dark signature of something much larger.
Gina Frangello is the author, most recently, of “A Life in Men.’’ She teaches in the University of California-Riverside Palm Desert’s low-residency MFA program in creative writing.