The Children Act – Ian McEwan

 This book was sent to me by the wonderful people at Random House India in exchange of an honest review

The minimalist and yet, wonderfully eloquent cover of ‘The Children Act’ by Ian McEwan does complete justice to the story that follows. The image of a young boy jumping over a puddle on a very subtle blue cover gives the impression of a bird in flight viewed from afar. You can do little but admire his carefree grace and pray for his happiness in his innocence to last him a lifetime.

‘The Children Act’ opens with a husband asking his wife the dumbest question a man can probably ask a woman – namely, ‘mind if I have an affair with a younger, firmer woman to spice up my sex life?’ It would be hilarious, if it weren’t so sad. In creating Fiona’s husband, the author very subtly mocks the compulsive need of academics and intellectuals to ‘talk about’ and ‘discuss’ every thing in a ‘logical’ and ‘reasonable’ manner. As he sips his scotch and sits cross-legged in front of his naturally affronted wife, you can almost feel the waves of male academic superiority leaping off the pages of the book to smack you on the face. He discusses his ‘need’ for enlivening his sex life with such a well-meant air and appears so tragically martyred when he doesn’t receive the answer he expects that I almost burst out in an involuntary giggle. Only then, I turned around to look at the intelligent, over-achieving wife who is stuck to her chair in anger, horror, shame and guilt for driving him to say such things to her. And I realised what the real motive of the author in writing this essentially essay-like short story really was. It is a satire on our so-called intellectually progressed and spiritually elevated human beings who are actually as much the victims of the social norms that bind and rule us poorer souls. So, the wife is worried about pity from her colleagues and her friends more than how her husband’s callous decision/ lack thereof affects her. She seems to be the one in the relationship who loves deeper and so is naturally more hurt and more vulnerable. When she refuses the husband’s ‘request’, he leaves anyway. As predictable and understandable her decisions are up to this point, those that she takes succeeding this event  – regarding her marriage – are disappointing and, yet, just as easy to fathom. It is a testament to the fact that the most intellectual beings in the history of human civilization have been brought down by such an un-measurable entity as human emotion. It obviously takes much more than intellectual awareness to rise above petty human emotions in the majority of mankind. And, as cliched as it sounds, it the surfeit of money or the complete lack thereof.

This was actually the backdrop to the actual storyline. Fiona, the betrayed wife, is a High Court judge in Family court. Every day she takes decisions with regard to the lives of families torn apart by bitterness, hate or simply apathy. ‘Being fair’ is her major concern and she carried out her duties to that affect admirably. Until, that is, the day she comes across a case where despite taking a judicially accurate decision, she finds herself bothered by questions of life, religion and mortality – also leading to the eventual sex deprivation suffered by her husband. Ruminations on the relevance of religion on life and death choices in young adults or children occur throughout the narrative. The various cases mentioned in the novel deal with religion pushing individuals to choose between a death that supports the tenets of their beliefs and the joys that life will provide if they do not. It was immediately reminiscent of the case of the Hindu woman in a Catholic country who died because the doctors not only refused to perform a life-saving abortion of a dead fetus but also chose not to advise the family to fly across the pond where the operation could have been carried out. As much as I was impressed by the story, I was just as bowled over by the judiciary of a country that takes life altering judgement in 2 days and a social conscience of doctors that will do anything to save a life! When, if ever, will we see something like this in India?

Fiona’s judgement to save the life of a young man against not only his family’s beliefs but also those of the young man himself sets into motion a chain of events that end in tragedy and loss. Fiona’s guilt and inability to understand the essential innocence of a sheltered young man lead her into making choices which do not turn out to be correct on hindsight. But, it is again absolutely churlish to blame her – she is simply following the norms laid down by society and is, sadly, not unconventional enough to stick her neck out just like a majority of her accusers. How far beyond the limits of duty and short-lived empathy would you move to help an individual, especially if you have taken an embarrassing misstep midway?

The Children Act forces you to think back on all the little, tear-streaked faces you walked by in your hurry to work and ask yourself if you could do something to make a life better. And yet, it also asserts without punching you in the face with it the decree that this well-meant thought will again simply pass through an evening of academic discussion and brainstorming and into a forgotten anecdote the next day. The Children Act must be read as an essay on the very human condition of our world and of mistakes that may never be corrected by virtue of that condition.

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