FROM TO THE LIGHTHOUSE ON, the British have produced a series of novels that address empire and its downward trajectory in the most pointed and humane terms, even if the decline is tangential or offstage or simply the ecosystem in which the narrative unfolds. This kind of novel began to appear after the Great War and became almost second nature for writers writing halfway through the century and onward. It was the ether they lived in.
Ian McEwan burst on the scene in 1978 with his first novel, the macabre Cement Garden, in which four children hide their mother’s death and bury her in the basement because, as orphans, they might otherwise be taken up by social services and separated. The book is a family saga as well as a dystopian fantasy. As Mum putrefies below, things go from bad to worse upstairs, ending in incest. The writing is pure and the ideas gothic, the story taking place in a landscape of garbage and dirt in an outer English borough. It is an E. Nesbit children’s book run amok (you could call it Four Children and It), a Narnia tale if the Lewis stories had been set in dead suburbs or council flats rather than in an enchanted forest. England hadn’t looked this ruinous since Dickens created Tom-All-Alone’s, the London slum in Bleak House, written under Victoria, when empire was grand but the cruelty of the industrial revolution and stark capitalism had begun to take their toll.
McEwan loves gothic. Weird and creepy are strengths of his, as befits someone from a country that is, at least imaginatively, ancient and crumbling. Dickens too loved the strange and outlandish, the eccentric and just plain odd, especially for their humorous or sentimental effect.
I mention Dickens again with justification. McEwan’s new book begins by citing — one cannot even call it paraphrasing — the famous opening of Bleak House, as many writers have wished to do but have refrained from doing. It’s a rather grand claim to make, that your book has anything about it that’s similar to this greatest of Dickens’s works.
“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.” That’s Dickens.
Here’s McEwan: “London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather. Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, at home on Sunday evening, supine on a chaise longue […]”
One would assume that this little echo, easily done and pleasantly evocative, foreshadows comedy, since it would be the height of hubris for McEwan to imagine he was thus introducing a book of as huge a scope, as broad a brush, as vast a canvas as Dickens’s 624-page tragicomic masterpiece (and this in 8-point type, single spaced). We know, just from lifting McEwan’s book and casting an eye over its airy pages, that no Bleak House is to follow, that no attempt at Bleak House has been made. But it’s not a comedy. So, one wonders, why the echo?
Well, you can’t start a book with the one-word sentence “London.” and not have it be about London (which means England). That’s what Dickens was writing about and that’s what McEwan is writing about.
In part, McEwan opens with the echo to show how much the England of Dickens has changed. Fiona Maye, McEwan’s protagonist, is a family division judge who decides matters of custody as well as child welfare. She’s an authoritative woman, a figure who does not exist in the judicial world of the Dickens novel. Things are rather cut and dried now in the Inns of Court, McEwan shows us. There are no mad women ranting in the courtrooms, no rag and bottle dealers across the way. And no fan of gin goes up in flames caused by spontaneous combustion.
No, in this new world, eccentricity has been rubbed flat, and the law shows a regard for numbers and an adherence to a kind of strict, dry, but efficient code that it did not in Jarndyce v Jarndyce, the infamous, corrupt, multigenerational inheritance case that, in Bleak House, strews misery and death in its wake. As McEwan writes of his judge: “She believed she brought reasonableness to hopeless situations.” In Bleak House, the legal community brings hopelessness to reasonable situations.
In fact, the case at the heart of The Children Act is snappily decided. Removed from the purview of a jury, it is presented and wrapped up in three days, even though it concerns matters of life and death. For the brief story McEwan is telling, it is necessary that the case be brief itself. Often the interests of the characters in The Children Act fall prey to the demands of its neatly woven plot.
Fiona Maye is the presiding judge and must come to a decision in a very fraught situation. Adam Henry, a lovely boy of almost 18, is ill with a virulent leukemia. Aggressive treatment of the underlying cancer has lowered his resistance to an opportunistic pneumonia. If he does not receive a transfusion in the next 24 hours or so, he will most likely suffer a terrible, painful death. But he and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose faith rejects transfusion as impure and even satanic. The hospital treating Adam, a patient beloved of all the nursing and medical staff, is suing to transfuse him. Fiona must decide whether to force a life-saving measure on the boy or allow him to die as his faith, his parents, and he himself decree.
McEwan is a lot of fun to read, even when he’s set himself such a dire situation with which to engage. Just as you can’t believe how much fun it is to read the horrendous slog through Dunkirk in Atonement, you can’t believe how much you’re enjoying the descriptions of the horrific cases that Fiona is deciding, including but not exclusively Adam’s. The one about the Siamese twins is particularly disturbing and a breeze to read.
Indeed, the pages happily flip by in spite of Adam Henry’s leukemia and his predicament. The book takes half a day to read; maybe a little more, if you’re busy. In part this is because the secondary plot, about Fiona’s disintegrating marriage, is also reasonably engaging. She’s 59, and her husband Jack, a professor of ancient history, is 60. The book opens with Jack announcing, over several glasses of a rather nice Scotch, in their rather nicely appointed flat in Gray’s Inn, that he is entitled to have one more passionate fling (with his 28-year-old statistician, as it happens, in a wonderful dignity-reducing stroke of McEwan humor) before resigning himself forever to his happy but unexciting marriage.
But for all its fine description, flashes of humor and vivid pathos, The Children Act feels strangely formulaic. In the setup, Jack tells Fiona he is leaving. Fiona meanwhile (somewhat unbelievably and in detail) muses, as their debate waxes and wanes, about a few of her cases. And then, bam! Diabolus ex machina, a phone call from her harried clerk throws Fiona into the drama of the novel’s inciting incident.
McEwan knows his craft — the novel’s structure is as tight as it can be — but often, as this plot performs its twists, the reader may feel as if the writer has forgotten what it means to take risks, a particular irony since a lesson of the book centers on the necessity of risk taking. Nothing here feels dangerous or wild. A dry, accidental, but nonetheless illicit kiss between the 59-year-old Fiona and young Adam is what brings the action toward its inevitable end. Clearly meant to be invested with dread, this action falls flat and feels forced.
Fiona is a very good person with all the right instincts. She stands in for McEwan and the kind of people who are his readers, for the ethical secular Western descendants of the Enlightenment, for the inheritors of empire and its final responsibilities, for the good Englishman. She is like dear John Jarndyce of Bleak House, the soul of kindness. Like him, Fiona wants to do good. She believes that kindness is “the essential human ingredient,” and kindness figures into her judicial decisions, in Adam’s case as in the rest of her work.
Concerned about what might happen to her professional standing should she become too involved with an unstable teenage litigant, however, she fails to respond at the moment when Adam most needs her support; she chooses not to answer his notes, pleas to which she could have easily responded had she been braver and less concerned with propriety.
A great writer should be allowed to write a not-so-great book, especially one as readable as The Children Act. The problem for this book — which has been whispering to us all along that it’s not about what it seems to be about — is that it attempts to be a cautionary tale about the evils of faith and the difficulty of leading a moral life in the secular world when faced with unshakable zealotry of certain believers. The Children Act in the end seems to be a parable for the secular West’s engagement with Islamic extremism.
Fiona’s failure with Adam — that is, she doesn’t stand by him when he tries to throw off his extreme beliefs — appears to be a mirror held up by McEwan to show us that dreadful things await us if the West fails to live up to its responsibilities in supporting the battle against Islamic radicalism. The Jehovah’s Witnesses here, who would put an innocent life at risk, who are willing to sacrifice Adam for the faith, are in fact stand-ins for those who send young suicide bombers to become martyrs.
Indeed McEwan uses the phrase “martyr to his faith” at one point to describe Adam. And Fiona, who mistakes moral weakness for moral strength, is called “My Lady,” even outside the courtroom, which is the same honorific Dickens bestows on the morally compromised woman at the center of Bleak House.
The instructor is teaching us a lesson.
Message fictions are problematic. This one, because it’s by a master novelist, is not so thin as it might be. Fiona’s character is richly observed; she’s everything one might imagine a pillar of Western civilization to be: intelligent, ethical, decent, funny, beautiful (of course), kind-hearted, and superbly sure of her probity, which is the answer to why she never responds to Adam’s imploring. She has, as the narrator notes, “a powerful grip on what was conventionally correct.” Legally, she does right by Adam, but personally she fails him. She fails this brilliant boy, the violin-playing, poetry-loving, Keats-looking Adam, the future of olde England personified.
Funny how at the end of Bleak House, written at the height of empire with scathing hatred of the British aristocracy and of all forms of hypocrisy engendered by the country’s huge and complicated economy, one ends up quite liking England. Its foibles and grandeur and horror and misery are awe-inspiring. They’re so human. The Children Act inspires no such awe about this sceptered isle. The imperium is simply coming to its inglorious end.
At a Christmas concert toward the end of the book, Fiona, an accomplished pianist, plays her finale in a spirit of “tranquil resignation,” even as she begins to realize something terrible may have happened to Adam. As she accepts her standing ovation, her smile becomes rigid. Fiona was supposed to save Adam from zealotry, but she was unable, finally, to go beyond propriety and convention; she refused to risk anything to rescue him. Without realizing it, she allowed him to teeter on the edge of a terrible danger while she dithered and kept her distance.
McEwan believes in the power of the written word. As in Atonement, much of the action in The Children Act rests on the fate of a short note (or two) of great significance to the characters. The message of The Children Act is this: at all costs, protect what you love. If you cannot stomach risk, you may lose everything. But because this book is just a touch too transparently a morality play, because its lessons belong more to the literalness of propaganda than to the mysterious power of fiction, it doesn’t quite move us and those lessons, although noted, go largely unlearned.
Amy Wilentz is the author, most recently, of Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti.