The Children Act

Recommendation: Yes, very much yes

Where to read: Somewhere no-one can see you cry

Read with: Tissues and Glenmorangie 10 

In brief: It’s beautiful and, while not as gutting as Atonement, packs serious emotional punch.


First semester, first year of law school: we are studying torts (in addition to the basic “intro to the law” course everyone does), starting with the basic civil actions for trespass, assault and battery. I am doing the readings (for the first and last time in my degree) and preparing for the mid-sem and find myself distracted by the particularly niche subject of consent to medical procedures on minors and others without or with limited capacity. Gillick, Marion’s Case and In Re F lie at the entry to this fairly unpleasant wonderland. They are gateway cases, if you will. Right down the bottom of the rabbit hole in a pit of misery and moral discomfort lies a series of cases concerning the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The typical fact pattern goes something like this:

  1. Child has an accident/illness;
  2. Child needs an operation/starts bleeding out on the operating table;
  3. Parents refuse to consent to a blood transfusion;
  4. Hospital makes an urgent application to a court;
  5. Child probably dies anyway.

These cases crop up periodically, causing predictable consternation, and the role of parents and guardians, doctors and the courts in relation to children and persons with a disability remains predictably fraught. You only have to look at the Charlie Gard to get a sense of the stakes and the passions aroused.

Into the melee wades Ian McEwan…

McEwan talked about being inspired by the sparse, lucid prose of (good) judges and it very much comes across. Indeed, it’s very clear that he’s read through many of these Family Division cases and copy-pasted sections from judgments straight into the novel.** Pared with the empathetic and nuanced characterisation of Justice May (the supporting characters aren’t as strongly written), the result is a compassionate and complex novel about choice, religion, morality, law and relationships.

I did, however, get quite irritated at the constant focus on May’s childlessness. It does have an artistic point here and is a key part of the thematic development so I should probably give McEwan a pass but, and it’s a big but, it’s a ubiquitous, criminally lazy trope and I’m profoundly sick of it. Anxiety about fertility is to the half-baked characterisation of middle-aged women what clumsiness is to romantic herotweens in the Twilights of the world. I’d be substantially less peeved by its deployment in this context if it wasn’t so pervasive everywhere else. McEwan can rightly point to the vast majority of authors, Hollywood and every single tabloid journalist who has ever put pen to paper and cry “this is why we can’t have nice things.”

I’ve seen the film adaption and adored it, particular Emma Thompson’s performance, but I infinitely preferred the comparatively undramatic end to the book. McEwan’s restraint adds to the reality and pathos to what is, in the end, a fairly pathetic tragedy.

All in all, it’s worth the read. Then go read this.

** Not a breach of copyright, conveniently. I do note, however, that the fictional Justice May resolves the “Siamese twins” case differently (and worse) than her brother and sister judges in the real world.

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