At the start of Ian McEwan’s latest novel The Children Act, Fiona Maye, an English judge well into middle age, listens to her husband tell her he’d like to spend time with a younger and more exciting woman. The next day, she’s assigned the case of Adam Henry, a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia refusing a blood transfusion. The hospital wants to administer the transfusion against his will, for withholding it would kill him, but his parents want the hospital to respect their, and his, wishes.
It’s tempting to call McEwan’s narrative style, which follows characters’ thoughts as they go about their days, “stream of consciousness.” In one passage here, Maye starts a day at court while thinking about global warming, her childlessness, aging, and regrets over previous rulings. This mental meandering is common throughout his novels. In Saturday, a neurosurgeon enjoys a day off while reflecting on turmoil in his family and the post-9/11 world.
“Stream of consciousness” isn’t quite fair, though, as the term brings to mind a fragmented narrative, something pieced together from vignettes. The stream of consciousness in McEwan’s novels flows as smoothly as a good essay. McEwan shows and tells: by what characters are thinking and what their actions mean, he reveals more than he could through action and dialogue alone. (Does anybody really believe in “show, don’t tell”? I’ve only heard that maxim when it’s being refuted.)
McEwan takes the reader into the minds of thinking, perhaps over-thinking characters, as when Maye imagines the children she never had:
“The almost-existing children, the husky-voiced daughter, a museum curator perhaps, and the gifted, less settled son, good at too many things, who failed to complete his university course, but a far better pianist than she. Both always affectionate, brilliant at Christmases and summer-holiday castles and entertaining their younger relations.”
The novel doesn’t take place entirely in Maye’s head, however. The plot follows her relationship with Adam, which begins during when she visits him in the hospital and later takes an unhealthy turn.
The Children Act is not without eroticism—extramarital yearnings are prominent—but it’s blissfully free of the clunky sexuality that has marred some of McEwan’s previous novels. Rather than describing the awkward mechanics of a wedding night (On Chesil Beach) or a man losing his penis to frostbite (Solar), McEwan describes memories of and longings for sexual love. Of Maye and her husband’s first time, he writes: “When for the first time since she was seven years old, she screamed in pleasure.” It’s melodramatic, sure, but not as cringing an image as a philanderer searching for his genitals in the snow.
Like McEwan’s best novels, this is melodramatic to good effect: The characters and their feelings are often exaggerated, but the effect is compelling rather than cloying.
My objection to The Children Act is not aesthetic but religious. In previous novels and interviews, McEwan had made his sympathies for New Atheism clear, and they show here as well.
The people of faith in this novel—Adam (at the beginning) and his parents—are doctrinaire, clinging blindly to their beliefs and the institution that imposes them. When an opposing lawyer notes that Jehovah’s Witnesses have condemned blood transfusions only since 1945, the father replies “If there are changes in the teaching it’s because God only gradually reveals his purpose.” Adam practices the violin and writes poetry, yet refuses the transfusion: imagine his potential, the novel asks, if it weren’t for his faith.
However, many people of faith question the institutions they’re part of and the rules they’re told to follow. Among Methodists, many congregations advocate for fuller acceptance of homosexuals—including ordination and marriage—even as the General Conference refuses it. Among Mormons, less known for a spirit of free inquiry, groups advocate for the rights of women (Ordain Women) and homosexuals (Mormons Building Bridges).
After Adam loses his faith in a contrived plot twist, he comments that his old worldview involved “thinking that everybody’s watching and caring and that the whole universe is all about you.” But that’s hardly the Christian worldview. A personal relationship with God may sound absurd, but it doesn’t mean thinking “that the whole universe is all about you.” It means knowing that you’re loved and that you have a place, not at the center of the universe but somewhere within its clockwork.
And not all faith manifests itself through actions like the refusal of lifesaving medical treatment, which place rules above good. More often, faith is manifested through good works and kindness. Jesus said He wasn’t from this world, but through actions and teachings He implored us to get our hands dirty within it, giving to the needy and confronting injustice.
Of the teen’s relationship with the judge, McEwan writes, “He came to find her wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.” Beautifully written, but wrong. McEwan draws a false dichotomy when he implies that either “free-thinking people” or “the supernatural” can give meaning. The supernatural created the world, which makes meaning possible, but “free-thinking people” are left to find that meaning—often through faith.
In objecting to McEwan’s portrayal of faith, I’m not denying that The Children Act is an artful novel. I’m only disagreeing with it. Just as novelists have the right to disagree with, upset and infuriate readers, readers have a right to respond.
The Children Act doesn’t have a balanced view of faith, and neither claims or needs to. Rather, it succeeds in telling the story of “[a]n abandoned fifty-nine-year-old woman, in the infancy of old age, just learning to crawl” as she handles overlapping personal and professional ordeals.
–Published September 9th by Doubleday