The Children Act
Jonathan Cape, ISBN 978 0 22410 1 998, 224pp, September 2014, £16.99.
A teacher at my secondary school used to re-read one Jane Austen book a year as a treat. Ian McEwan’s new books (or novellas?) are my treat. There are only a few authors whose next book I eagerly await, and Ian McEwan is one of them. Incidentally, I am not worried about terminology: is this a book or a novella? Who cares: this book is one I read in a day. It is just over 220 pages in hardback. I was completely absorbed in the world portrayed.
Lengthy reviews have been written in most newspapers and magazines. Now I am not a family lawyer and, indeed, am not a practising solicitor any more, but I did carry out family work years ago and I know a fair bit about family law procedures. So, will family lawyers, or any lawyers, have to grit their teeth to read The Children Act? No, I don’t think so.
The story is straightforward: a family judge, Fiona Maye, has to deal with a case where a teenage boy needs a blood transfusion which will probably save his life. His parents and the boy (he is almost 18) are refusing to allow the transfusion. In her private life, the judge has been told by her husband that he is either about to embark on (or has possibly started) an affair.
The judge decides to visit the boy to find out his true wishes before giving judgment and from her personal involvement a chain of events is set off. Fiona Maye is suffering emotionally from a decision she made a few weeks earlier about conjoined twins and if one should live. (‘Blind luck, to arrive in the world with your properly formed parts in the right place, to be born to parents who were loving, not cruel, or to escape, by geographical or social accident, war or poverty. And therefore to find it so much easier to be virtuous’.
The book explores a number of difficult legal scenarios. Should a ‘westernised’ mum keep her children at a mixed-sex school when her estranged partner wants them schooled within a strict faith? There is a haunting reference to the case of a professional woman, who was convicted of causing the deaths of her two babies based on statistics quoted by a pathologist who turned out to be wrong, and her subsequent jailing, release and death. A case of alleged satanic abuse where children are removed from their families turns out to be untrue. No names are mentioned, so all are treated as fictional cases. But all lawyers, and most readers, will know which cases these scenarios are based on.
So, there are beautifully written summaries of some of the very difficult decisions that are made in the family courts. If you have ever tried to summarise a case to make it of interest, you will appreciate how well these are written. And how cleverly the author portrays the difficult decisions facing family judges, particularly when balancing parents’ sincerely held beliefs about how children should be brought up against societal expectations.
The issues in this book are many, but all written so well. What do you say to your partner, who wants the excitement of an affair before his sixties, but wants the marriage to survive? Other reviews have commented on the childlessness of the couple, but that seemed to be very sensitively portrayed and of some importance, although not over played. I loved the minor characters: the judge’s clerk, the nurses and the social worker, who is outwardly chaotic but perceptive.
It is a long time since Ian McEwan’s 1978 novel, The Cement Garden, about how children manage when left without parents or any adult influence. I remember finding that book profoundly shocking on many levels. This book makes me want to re-read The Cement Garden because it seems that The Children Act is a more sophisticated exploration of how society treats children and how children’s welfare can be considered in the complex world in which we live, where issues about how children should be raised are not subject to consensus.
Lawyers may argue that their client does have his/her child’s welfare at heart, but the more you think about it the more you realise how complex section 1 the Children Act 1989 is. As set out at the start of the book: ‘When a court determines any question with respect to … the upbringing of a child … the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration’.