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Law like love

Ian McEwan returns in splendid form with his latest novel, The Children Act, after a desultory interlude filled in by Saturday (2005), On Chesil Beach (2007) and Solar (2010). Sweet Tooth (2012), set in the 1970s and among MI5 agents, had flashes of McEwan’s signature brilliance: his appetite for intrigue, ability to shock the reader with understated deception, and keen eye for characterization. McEwan had last invoked these tropes, with an acute command over style, in Atonement. In The Children Act, he revives these to explore an idea—one that is expressed by a legal provision that lends the novel its title.

The Children Act of 1989, which is part of the British legal system and from which McEwan quotes in the epigraph, states 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 crux of the statement lies in the interpretation of the term “welfare" which, as McEwan goes on to show, is not only notional but also, at its best and worst, deeply subjective.

The Children Act: Jonathan Capw, 224 pages, Rs 499
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The Children Act: Jonathan Capw, 224 pages, Rs 499

The story opens with Fiona Maye, a leading judge at the Inns of Court in London especially involved with the family division, where she has to arbitrate in disputes between feuding couples filing for divorce and battling for their children’s custody. At 59, Fiona is childless, having spent years “drifting deeper into family law as the idea of her own family receded". Her husband, Jack, is threatening to have an affair with a young statistician because Fiona’s enthusiasm for sex is dwindling, though not her devotion to her marriage. In the thick of this situation, as Fiona struggles to clutch on to the vestiges of dignity while being wracked by the fear of abandonment, she has to summon up her steely reserve and officiate in two crucial cases.

The first of these pertains to the custody of two young girls born to orthodox Jewish parents, and is resolved without much incident. But the second, which concerns a 17-year-old leukaemia patient raised in the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses, forces Fiona to confront her vulnerabilities, both as an agent of the law as well as a human being.

Adam Henry, a beautiful boy on the brink of adulthood, does not wish to take blood transfusion since his religion forbids the intake of blood products. His parents, while deeply distressed, are reluctant to disobey the strictures of their faith, even at the cost of losing their son. So the doctors at the hospital where young Adam is fighting for his life make an appeal to the court to issue an order for the treatment to go ahead.

Without this medical procedure, Henry will almost certainly die a painful death—or will be left crippled if he survives. It falls upon Fiona, therefore, to convince the young man of the necessity to relent, while not offending the sensibilities of the religious community that would rather make him a martyr to their cause than allow him the extension of a life brimming with talent. Her ruling, when it comes, hinges on the question of Adam’s twilight legal status—near-adult, though not quite—and fuelled by the best of intentions. But to be a saviour, as Fiona realizes, she has to look beyond the legal body, and into that unfathomable aspect of being human—which, for the lack of a better word, is referred to as the soul.

McEwan succeeds in laying out Fiona’s predicament in visceral detail without losing sight of the ethical question at the heart of the plot. Her encounter with Adam in his hospital chamber is intense, unpredictable, perhaps a touch exaggerated—but also etched out with consummate care, so that even her most striking transgressions never feel out of order.

The book releases next week.

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