Summary: A family law judge wrestles with the ethical issues of her job and the personal issues of her life.
I once primarily read science fiction because it was in science fiction that I thought that ideas were best explored. I have since grown and experimented more in my reading choices. And recently I have come to think that ‘literary fiction’ should be defined more by its ability to interact with bigger ideas than any other measure.
The Children Act (and the Susan Howatch books I have been reading much of this year) are prime examples of what I mean by this description of literary fiction.
Fiona Maye is a UK High Court judge. She has very difficult cases in areas that in the US we would call family law. Divorce, child abuse, medical treatment of children, etc. While she is at the top of her career, a career that she has sacrificed her own chances of motherhood for, her husband has decided that his life needs a change. And so he is asking her permission to have an affair, although it is clear he has decided to have one regardless of her permission.
It is this context that the rest of the book is set. The court does not simply stop because her marriage is in shambles. And so a surprising number of ethically and legally challenging cases are presented in a fairly short book for Judge Maye to wrestle with as she also attempts to understand what has brought her own personal life to this place.
The cases include conjoined twins where both twins cannot live while joined, but if separated one with die immediately. Another (and the main) case is a religious freedom case for a 17 year old Jehovah’s Witness has to have a blood transfusion as part of his treatment for cancer. This violates his, and his family’s, religious beliefs but without the transfusion he will die. And with the transfusion, he almost certainly will live.
It is this case, that Judge Maye decides to become personally involved. And the ethics of the case, and her personal interaction in it that make the book.
I have not read any other books by Ian McEwan before, but I can understand why he is such a beloved writer. This book seems really quick. And the lightness of McEwan’s touch is part of what make the book work.