This is Ian McEwan’s sixteenth book of fiction, by my count, and among the best and most accomplished novels he has ever written. His particular thread of success, it seems to me, has been to compose passages that burn a scar into memory, like star-shells on a flinching retina. In his earlier work, these were often scenes—moments, almost—of intense horror that the empathetic reader might spend years trying to forget. For example, the loss of a little daughter who vanishes in a supermarket, never to be found again (The Child in Time). Or the man clinging to the rope of a soaring balloon who knows that he will have to let go (Enduring Love).
These were coups: almost sadistically calculated stabs into the imagination. They were freeze-frame snapshots. But McEwan, his powers constantly developing in zigzag and unexpected ways, can now make a sustained stretch of narrative memorable in the same way, and—this is new—a character. Personalities in his fiction have often been a bit secondary, taking the shape they need to carry experiences. But in The Children Act, it’s Fiona Maye, a highly respected, middle-aged English judge in the “Family Division” that deals with marital disputes and custodies, who engraves herself in memory. Her small habits with coffee cups, or with the chaise longue onto which she subsides to read her briefs, are as vivid as this story of her search to be fair and kind and her unwilling self-discovery of hidden dreads and passions.
The Children Act is quite a short novel, and it’s hard to understand how it encloses so many themes so smoothly. Family law is here, and the bad things parents do to their children and to one another in the name of love. Growing older in a marriage is here, with the urge for a “last fling” either given a chance or (Fiona) nervously denied. The English legal establishment of the Temple and the Inns of Court is here in all its intellectual brilliance and snobbish arrogance, its triumphs of humane rationality set against its shocking reluctance to face miscarriages of its own justice. Rain is omnipresent, a drumming background from first page to last of remorseless English downpour, waterlogging every prospect of pleasure. And Fiona’s taste in music is constantly on stage, from Keith Jarrett’s Facing You to the Mahler that she plays in a Temple concert and Britten’s setting of Yeats’s “Down by the Salley Gardens”—a song that comes to play a fateful part in McEwan’s story.
There are two very different narratives running here, and without McEwan’s craft they might have come apart. One is about the law, or about the fearsome Solomonic judgments that sometimes have to be made in family cases. Nearly half the novel consist of Family Division trial scenes—one trial in particular—in which Fiona Maye (“My Lady” to the…
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