Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 5, 2019

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

A long time ago when I was bored brainless by teaching in a complacent, over-privileged school, I started a law degree part-time as an escape route.  But before long I realised that even though I loved studying law, I didn’t want to spend my working days with other lawyers and I didn’t want to work in academia.  A chance conversation with a writer was the catalyst for me to chuck the law degree, and shortly afterwards fate intervened.  I was promoted to a school where I felt I could actually achieve something purposeful with my career.

I never regretted my decision but I still like the intellectual effort of untangling the principles of law, and that is why I really liked Ian McEwen’s The Children Act.  It’s a book that humanises the law and the people who apply it, defying the ease with which John Smith and the tabloids decry the law ‘as an ass’.

In this novel, a High Court judge has to make a difficult decision while her long marriage is falling apart.  She is sixty, and has devoted her life to her career, but now her husband wants to have an affair.  Outraged, she watches him go and changes the locks.  All credit to her, she does not proceed at work on auto-pilot, but instead applies her mind to the very difficult legal problem before her.

The principle upon which her decision must rest is clear: McEwen quotes the relevant section at the start of the book:

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.
Section 1(a), the Children’s Act (1989)

Our Australian Family Courts work under an identical principle.  It seems so obvious, and easy…

In McEwen’s story, Judge Fiona Maye has to rule on whether a hospital can overrule the parents’ decision to refuse a blood transfusion to a dying child. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses so this decision is based on their religious beliefs, but its consequences are that he will die a gruesome death when he otherwise would probably recover.  The complicating factor is that the ‘child’ is three months shy of turning eighteen.  In adulthood, the decision would be his entirely, but he doesn’t have three months left.  Already the delay in his treatment means that he is suffering breathlessness.  The matter is urgent.

It’s not a long book, but McEwen unpicks the complexities of this case so that the reader shares the dilemmas.  Because he is so close to adulthood, Adam’s state of mind must be considered.  Is he old enough, intelligent enough, self-aware enough to understand fully what his choices entail?  Is he influenced unduly by the religious views of his parents and the Elders who visit him to shore up the certainty of refusal?  Has his education been sufficiently rigorous to enable him to make decisions like this? Does his agreement with his parents’ beliefs arise from his fear of being ‘disassociated’ (i.e. excommunicated and excluded from the community)?

Is there some factor she hasn’t thought of?  And is it humanly possible, in a brief bedside interview, to break through adolescent reserve and bravado to arrive at the truth?

At any time, in any country, in numerous different contexts, there are people invested with great power to whom we, the people, entrust critical decisions.  They are the ones whose job it is to make the difficult decisions, on our behalf.  This novel asks, is it humanly possible to keep a clear head when one’s personal life is in turmoil?  Who bears the responsibility when common sense and reason fails, and an appointed Solomon makes a choice that has unanticipated consequences?

There’s a strand of literary criticism which is never going to forgive Ian McEwen for being middle-class, and especially not for his novel Saturday.  Nevertheless, The Children Act was nominated for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction (2015), the Goodreads Choice Award  for Fiction (2014), and the International Dublin Literary Award (2016).

I liked it.

Author: Ian McEwen
Title: The Children Act
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House UK), 2014, 216 pages
ISBN: 9780099599630
Personal library, free from a giveaway table



  1. Love the bit about the strand of literary criticism that won’t forgive him for being middle class.


    • identity politics again! I have just read the chapter on IP in Jeff Sparrow’s Trigger Warnings, and it’s really interesting:)


  2. And of course it has recently been made into a well-reviewed film (which I haven’t seen yet) starring the wonderful Emma Thompson.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. great review. thanks lisa. all the best, Sara


  4. I liked it too.


  5. ‘There’s a strand of literary criticism which is never going to forgive Ian McEwen for being middle-class, and especially not for his novel Saturday.’
    What?! Really?


    • Oh absolutely. Look at this, by a Goodreads reviewer whose book reviews are usually well worth following:

      “However The Children’s Act is a return to his over-researched worst, polemic disguised as literature, peddling a smug middle-class belief in the superiority of the Western professional classes (and I say that as a Western middle-class professional myself) and in the redeeming power of art (here set in stark contrast to religion).

      Now for a confession – I wrote all the above before I even opened this book, simply based on everything I’d heard about the novel, including the author’s own comments.”


      • So judgemental! I also don’t think it’s a reviewer’s place to pass judgement on the amount of research a novel needs. His comment that a literary novel doesn’t need that amount of research…it dismisses the writing process for an individual author, whereby an author may personally need that much research in order to feel as though they can write the novel in the way it needs to be written. I kind of feel this is reviewing Ian McEwan more than his novel.


        • There’s an awful lot of identity politics around the book industry at the moment, based on the idea that one’s membership of any group (skin colour, ethnic identity, social class or gender) predetermines the views and values that one will hold (as a writer and/or as a reviewer), and – taken to extremes – identity politics sometimes discounts the right to have an opinion at all unless the identity is shared. There are people who refuse to read the other gender, or object to books & reviews if the author/reviewer is not of that identity, or dismiss any criticism as coming from a ‘privileged’ perspective and therefore irrelevant or unworthy.

          It’s a minefield…


          • Hhmm. This is next level from cultural approbation, I suppose. I feel as though to a certain extent identity politics may dismiss intelligence. I can see the issues and why they may be issues, but I can also consider that as a reader, I possess enough intelligence to approach a text with impartiality. This also seems very dictatorial, as though we must all stick to our own kind and only expose ourselves to what we already know…
            Definitely a minefield. I’ll stay out here in the outback and ride this debate out.


            • Well, I hear you. I like it best when we all share our experiences and try to get along, taking people as we find them.

              Liked by 1 person

  6. I have struggled with his books in the past but I do like the sound of this. I have struggled with the concept in the past that adult parents can determine religious practises on children that can impact on their life or worse.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, there’s another case in the book, about separating parents disagreeing about the kind of education their children will have, liberal or religious. It’s a difficult issue…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I belong to that strand! And, I’m afraid I’m not fond of research either ( though I know Joyce was meticulous about getting Dublin’s street names right while writing in Switzerland). And to top it off I don’t like guys writing female protagonists. But as it happens I quite enjoyed The Children Act.


    • Good. Just like the rest of us, you are not consistent:)


  8. In case you did not know, Lisa, the book has been made into a movie starring Emma Thompson. Released November, 2018.

    Again, thank you for your posts. I have learned so much from you. I am grateful.

    From Judy, an American with a son and, now two grandchildren, living in Australia. Yes, a daughter-in-law, also; one we love in spite of her enticing Geoffrey to live in Australia.

    On Mon, Feb 4, 2019 at 8:06 PM ANZ LitLovers LitBlog wrote:

    > Lisa Hill posted: “A long time ago when I was bored brainless by teaching > in a complacent, over-privileged school, I started a law degree part-time > as an escape route. But before long I realised that even though I loved > studying law, I didn’t want to spend my working days ” >


    • Hello Judith, I’m disappointed to have missed this movie, it looks as if I shall have to wait till it’s available on DVD.
      I hear the ache in your heart: The Offspring worked in Silicon Valley for a while and I was worried that he would meet some gorgeous American girl and never come home.
      We want our children to be happy, but we miss them so when they’re far from home.


  9. I quite liked this one as well. And the way that it was resolved, without being resolved (if that’s vague enough to avoid spoilers). Reading about divorces and separations is rather a pet project. I’ve just discovered a minor Henry James (What Maisie Knew) which has also recently been made into a film. Not that I need to tell you anything about an ever-evolving and swelling TBR list!


    • I remember finding Maisie in an OpShop. I had to look twice, because it was such a skinny little book and in my mind Henry James writes *long* books. I think that’s because he writes long sentences!
      I can see why it would make a film for our times. Divorcing parents often behave badly, and too often they think they’re only hurting the other party, but as a teacher of primary school children I would often see the results, devastating pain for their children. Maisie is the only one in that book who has any dignity.


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