‘What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?’ – The Children Act by Ian McEwan

tcaimYou’ve probably seen the First World Problems meme – ‘they’d run out of squid at the supermarket’, that kind of thing. The late fiction of Ian McEwan sometimes hinges on such problems as these. You could see it in Saturday (and the great online hubbub that sometimes surrounds a new McEwan made substantial amounts of hay with the terrible middle classness of it all). You can see it even more in The Children Act. Our narrator is Fiona Maye, a leading high court judge. We first meet her as she relaxes in her home, ‘recessed bookshelves by the fireplace and, to one side, by a tall window, a tiny Renoir lithograph of a bather, bought by her thirty years earlier for fifty pounds’. There is a blue vase on a walnut table, a Bokhara rug, ‘a baby grand piano bearing silver framed family photos’. The opening of the novel centres on a fall out with her husband, who is fed up that they don’t have sex anymore. He wants to start an affair with her blessing. She doesn’t give it, understandably, but resists explaining what has been bothering her (a case she was involved with some months previously involving Siamese twins). Nonplussed, her husband packs a case and leaves.

The marital discord aside, Fiona’s life largely continues as normal. She goes to work the next morning (we take the walk from her house to work with her, McEwan offering us her route as if it is integral to the plot – not too sure it is, and he doesn’t handle as well as, say, Sarah Waters might), and observe her day, the judgements she makes, what she eats, her decision to change the locks at her house (she calls ‘her locksmith’ – I wonder how many of McEwan’s readers have their own locksmith) etc. At the end of the day, she is called to rule upon a case of Jehovah’s Witnesses: Adam Henry, a 17 year old boy is refusing treatment and may die, his parents agree with his decision, inline as it is with the teachings of their church, and Fiona is asked, on behalf of the hospital, to intercede. She listens to the arguments on each side and then decides to visit Adam at his hospital bed. Her aim is ostensibly to see whether Adam could be said to understand what awaits him if he refuses treatment. Afterwards, she makes a ruling and then returns home to find her husband sitting on the steps.

The rest of the novel (which is to be filed among the shorter works of Ian McEwan, Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach etc) focuses on Fiona’s faltering marriage and the strange relationship that develops between her and Adam (a mild echo of Enduring Love anyone?) culminating in a Christmas party that recalls the climax of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ (to the obvious detriment of the novel). In terms of what happens, aside of the aforementioned marital discord, a woman does her job, receives some letters and a poem and then commits the mildest indiscretion since Keat’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (‘What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?’ – what wild ecstasy indeed?). Portions of The Children Act are riveting – the sidesteps into the cases Fiona and her colleagues are working on make for the best scenes in the book – but the portions are not held together by anything resembling a compelling narrative. There are other issues – we learn a lot about the music that Fiona likes, we never hear about the Siamese twins again despite the fact that we were told that they had derailed her, it feels detached from the world despite having a central character asked to make judgements upon it. 

And of course it’s all about people of immense privilege and its intent seems to be ‘look, people who have everything have problems too.’ In the acknowledgements, McEwan says the novel ‘would not exist without Sir Alan Ward, lately of the Court of Appeal, a judge of great wisdom, wit and humanity.’ It seems to me that it wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world if the novel didn’t exist but that aside it would seem good advice for McEwan to step away from his good friends the judges and stop devising novels constructed after friendly banter during very pleasant dinner parties. Go and sit at a bus stop. Look at the world. Whilst I’m sure the 1% you write about appreciate the attention, it’s hard to feel sympathy for characters such as these.  

Any Cop?: As far as this reader is concerned, it’s the weakest McEwan since Amsterdam – but that won the Booker, so what do we know? 



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