Beyond the Salley Gardens: Love and Guilt in Ian McEwan’s The Children Act

DSCN1329 - Version 8McEwan, Ian. The Children Act. 2014. Toronto: Vintage, 2015.

I find I enjoy some of Ian McEwan’s novels and not others. On Chesil Beach, for example, I found a little ho hum, if ho hum can be accepted as allowable critical language, but The Children Act  I like.

DSCN1369 - Version 2The Children Act presents us with the irony of a High Court Judge, Fiona Maye, known for her penetrating judgements in the Family Court faced with the possible breakdown of her own marriage to a university professor. While she is dealing with the fact of her husband’s desire for “one big passionate affair” (7), she must also settle what to do with Adam Henry a Jehovah’s Witness just a few months short of his eighteenth birthday and legal adulthood who will die without a blood transfusion. Somewhat unusually, she visits Adam in hospital, and by doing so becomes more involved with Adam than is wise.

DSCN1329 - Version 8The novel  elicits our compassion. McEwan writes empathically and insightfully in a spare, incisive prose. His evocation of the challenges of maintaining a long-term marriage in the face of the pressures of career and passing time is masterful, and in Fiona he creates a believable, sympathetic protagonist. This is a novel about guilt for sins of both omission and commission,  a novel about the power of grief. The characters in The Children Act yearn for something more than they have, to be something more than they are; they long to have something to believe in, for another chance in the face of time that is inexorably passing.

A novel confronting human frailties and strengths particularly when facing the stress between desire and rationality, between seizing an unknown future and nurturing a comfortable present, and especially when navigating the tension between guilt and shame, it probes both our understanding of self-definition and our definition of the tragic. A novel about acceptance, adjustment, and adulthood, it left me wondering if only the sensitive young can make the grand gesture whether by defying or in submitting to their situation. The mature make accommodation with it and find a certain measure of content but carry the burden of knowing their own compromise.



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