Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in London presiding over cases in family court. She is fiercely intelligent, well respected, and deeply immersed in the nuances of her particular field of law. Often the outcome of a case seems simple from the outside, the course of action to ensure a child’s welfare obvious. But the law requires more rigor than mere pragmatism, and Fiona is expert in considering the sensitivities of culture and religion when handing down her verdicts.
But Fiona’s professional success belies domestic strife. Her husband, Jack, asks her to consider an open marriage and, after an argument, moves out of their house. His departure leaves her adrift, wondering whether it was not love she had lost so much as a modern form of respectability; whether it was not contempt and ostracism she really fears. She decides to throw herself into her work, especially a complex case involving a seventeen -year -old boy whose parents will not permit a life saving blood transfusion because it conflicts with their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. But Jack doesn’t leave her thoughts, and the pressure to resolve the case – as well as her crumbling marriage – tests Fiona in ways that will keep readers thoroughly enthralled until the last stunning page.
I was drawn to this book due to the moral dilemmas it promised to throw up as I love a book that makes me really think and feel. I was also interested to get a, albeit fictional, judge’s perspective after spending many years in the courtroom myself – not because I’m a naughty girl, but because I used to be a child protection social worker. I am, therefore, very familiar with The Children Act.
It was clear from the outset that McEwan had thoroughly researched The Children Act and the court process, including the issues that are brought up in hearings. The memories of the ‘he said, she said’, tit-for-tat of private law proceedings I had been involved in came flooding back and the unfortunate consequence of the children caught up in the middle of these battles.
‘And the children? Counters in a game, bargaining chips for use…’
To be honest, I don’t think my previous career helped me in reading this book as I read it with my professional head on which prevented me from considering the moral dilemmas in any depth. I could not get past the fact that Adam, the child at the centre of the story, was still a child in the eyes of the law despite being months off his eighteenth birthday and that the child’s welfare is paramount. The child’s wishes and feelings need to be considered, however, Adam’s welfare exceeded these, especially when it came to the price his wishes may ultimately cost him – that of his life. I would have made exactly the same decision as Fiona, the Judge.
Adam, brought up a Jehovah’s Witness, begins to question his faith and his parents following the court ruling. This leads to his confusion and, unfortunately, the very thing designed to save him is the very cause of his downfall;
‘Without faith, how open and beautiful and terrifying the world must have seemed to him.’
The ending did not come as a great surprise but it touched me deeply.
This book could also be classed as a character study. We meet the main character, Fiona, a Judge, as her marriage is on the rocks and we follow her day to day life. I empathised with her feelings – her marriage has been affected by the demands of her work and she had put off having children to focus on her career which, ironically, centres on taking care of the children of others. McEwan eloquently writes about her thoughts and feelings on this matter and I forgot that it was a man who had written this book.
McEwan’s prose throughout is perfect and beautiful. Despite being a short novel he does not scrimp on detailed and stunning descriptions that led me to reading sentences repeatedly to enjoy them again. He also manages the court hearing regarding Adam with tact and diplomacy and at no point did I feel he was being disparaging towards the beliefs held by those of different faiths.
This book saddened me deeply. It is an insight into human nature, society and all their flaws and the children caught up amongst this;
‘Blind luck, to arrive in the world with your properly formed parts in the right place, to be born to parents who were loving, not cruel, or to escape, by geographical or social accident, war or poverty.’
It is also an insight into the state of the protective services, with it’s emphasis on form filling and box ticking and the dilemmas faced by professionals everyday, which they ultimately have to live with;
‘Now, fewer delays, more boxes to tick, more to be taken on trust. The lives of children were held in a computer memory, accurately, but rather less kindly.’
I highly recommend this beautiful, intelligent and moving book.
Published on 2 September 2014 by Vintage Digital.