The Children Act

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This article is about the novel. For the Act of Parliament, see Children Act 1989.
The Children Act
ChildrenAct UK 200.jpg
First edition (UK)
Author Ian McEwan
Cover artist Gilles Peress
(Magnum Photos)
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Jonathan Cape (UK)
Nan A. Talese (US)
Publication date
2 Sept 2014 (UK)
9 Sept 2014 (US)
Pages 224 pages
ISBN 978-0-224-10199-8

The Children Act is a novel by the English writer Ian McEwan, published on 2 September 2014. The title is a reference to the Children Act 1989, a UK Act of Parliament. It has been compared to Charles Dickens' Bleak House, with its similar settings, and opening lines.[1]

Plot introduction[edit]

Fiona Maye is a respected High Court Judge specializing in Family Law and living in Gray's Inn Square. Though outwardly successful, in her private life she must contend with the regret of childlessness and the announcement by her husband that he is about to embark on an affair. Meanwhile she is called upon to rule in the case of Adam, a seventeen-year-old boy with leukemia who refuses a blood transfusion as a member of Jehovah's Witnesses.


Ian McEwan explains his inspiration in an essay he wrote for The Guardian which begins, "Some years ago I found myself at dinner with a handful of judges – a bench is the collective noun. They were talking shop, and I was politely resisting the urge to take notes...How easily, I thought at the time, this bench could be mistaken for a group of novelists discussing each other's work, reserving harsher strictures for those foolish enough to be absent. At one point, our host, Sir Alan Ward, an appeal court judge, wanting to settle some mild disagreement, got up and reached from a shelf a bound volume of his own judgments. An hour later, when we had left the table for coffee, that book lay open on my lap. It was the prose that struck me first. Clean, precise, delicious. Serious, of course, compassionate at points, but lurking within its intelligence was something like humour, or wit, derived perhaps from its godly distance, which in turn reminded me of a novelist's omniscience."[2][3]

McEwan has also personal experience of the courts themselves through his own acrimonious divorce, as he explained in an interview "Well, I’ve been through it myself. I’ve been in it, I’m familiar with the Family Division. We had years and years of it. It floated from the Crown Court to the High Court in the end."[4]


Reviews are mixed :

  • The Guardian's Kate Kellaway believes this to be "the best novel he has written since On Chesil Beach" and goes on to say "He leads us in one direction, then points us in another. And what one especially prizes is this ability to turn on his heel, change everything within a sentence or a well-placed word. From the start of this masterly novel, there is a larger sense, as Fiona lies on her chaise longue, that an elegantly established equilibrium is about to be rocked" and concludes "He keeps us tensely guessing – everything hingeing on Fiona's decision about the boy. And it will not spoil the plot to say that this is a novel which, above all, considers what it might mean to be saved – and not in the queasy sense in which Jehovah's witnesses have claimed the word."[5]
  • Tessa Hadley, also writing in The Guardian, enjoys the novels presentation of "a succession of particular cases from the family division in all their fascinating detail, along with the legal precedents and the issues they raise." but complains that "the digressions make the flow of life in The Children Act feel oddly halting, and, although the plotting is intricate, there's nothing in the writing of Fiona's private life that is as interesting as the legal arguments...The problem is the novel's prose seems not so much to imitate the flow of Fiona's experience, as to offer a fairly pedestrian summary."[6]
  • James Walton in The Telegraph criticizes the author, in concluding, "By my reckoning, there are at least three highly implausible twists as he strives, with diminishing returns, to push The Children Act into a novel. None is justified either by his obvious desire to remind us of religion’s annoying persistence, or by Fiona’s childlessness, often a sign of human incompleteness in his work. The book still contains plenty of good, typically precise writing...Yet, in the end – especially given the choice of Jehovah’s Witnesses as the chief target – the feeling persists that McEwan’s considerable intellectual and literary firepower is here being used for little more than shooting fish in a barrel."[7]
  • Sam Leith in Literary Review writes "The writer's hand is always there: you're aware of McEwan's workmanlike crisscrossing of his themes - parenting, moral responsibility, the austerity of law and messiness of life, the moving power of art (the boy's poetry; Fiona's piano-playing) and so on. It never descends to being a thesis novel, but you're definitely conscious of McEwan moving the pieces around on the chessboard. Scene by scene, The Children Act is grounded and plausible. McEwan's prose has all the quiet mastery to which his readers have become accustomed. Fiona herself is completely realised, and the description of the fissure in her marriage entirely convincing and well developed. But Adam - at least to my mind - is less well rounded and the connection between the two sides of the story seems willed rather than organic. The whole assemblage still feels, by Ian McEwan's own highest standards, a little bit thin."[1]
  • Cressida Connoelly in The Spectator was even more negative, with the strapline "Improbable, unconvincing and lazy - Ian McEwan’s latest is unforgivable...The characterisation is scant and the writing poor, and he never gives religion a chance"[8]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]