Published in October 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Jonathan Cape, £16.99
Ian McEwan’s early works—The Comfort of Strangers, The Cement Garden, First Love, Last Rites—were macabre and elusive. Characters meandered through uncertain streets, and death came casually, as if nothing really mattered. These days, McEwan’s novels revolve around bold central themes. With Saturday, it was neuroscience; with Solar, it was global warming; and with McEwan’s latest, The Children Act, it is religion. A High Court judge, Fiona Maye, 59, is discovered “at home on Sunday evening, supine on a chaise longue, staring… towards a partial view of recessed bookshelves… [and] a tiny Renoir lithograph of a bather, bought by her 30 years ago for £50.” Thirty years ago, McEwan would have buried Fiona in the garden of her opulent house, but now he afflicts her with a philandering husband and a prevailing sense of unease. Yet, like everyone, Fiona has to get up, go to work, put on her mask. Sitting in court, playing the part, Fiona is confronted by the central theme: a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, Adam, is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion. How should Fiona rule? Naturally McEwan is too seasoned to confine his novel to the drab court. Fiona goes to meet Adam in hospital; this forms the crux point of the book. Fiona has capitulated to the conventions of society and been richly rewarded while Adam—“ghoulishly pale, but beautiful”—is like some hollow-eyed Romantic poet who cannot bear the harshness of ordinary life. The Jehovah’s Witness angle feels a bit like docu-soap, but there is something much more moving, sad and delicate beneath, as McEwan turns to the lacerated self, the fear of solitude, the fear of death.