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Steven Boykey Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Book Review – The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children ActI have a rocky relationship with McEwan’s work. I liked Atonement. I loved Amsterdam. I rhapsodised to the point of obsession over Saturday. Other than the startlingly original and funny treatise on the single pubic hair peeping out of the heroine’s underwear, I did not like On Chesil Beach. Sweet Tooth invited an unflattering comparison to Le Carre at his best (damn, whatever happened to Le Carre?).

So I approached McEwans’s latest with the attitude of beaten puppy. It is, happily, a partial return to form. Not great, but very good, particularly after the books finds its rhythm after a slow start. Although there is a section of writing from page 131 – 135 which is better than great, a smouldering, sharply chiseled and gorgeously rendered essay on the sadness and horrors of failed families. I reread it three times – it is a reminder if just how good he is.

And failed families are the bedrock of this novel. The protag is Fiona Maye, an English high court judge presiding over family court. These matters are given life by 3 cases presented to M’Lady through the course the book and described in detail – the viewing and judgement over the morally ruptured rubble of families once catalysed by love and now exploded by resentment or hate or betrayal or the monotonous cacophony of human weakness and inflexibility. And always, damaged children standing stunned and mute in their wake. Ultra Orthodox Jewish fathers blocking their daughters’ access to education, an extreme Christian sect refusing to allow a blood transfusion for their dying son, a conjoined set of twins, for whom the medical murder of one will save the other. Moral morass, all grey, the sort of choices for which the law is near hopeless A second connected narrative, revealed early, concerns Fiona’s long term husband and partner to their childless but seemingly successful marriage who has has suddenly decided that he needs to have one great passionate affair with a younger woman before he slides down the hill of his 60s towards dotage. The interplay of her shock and humiliation and rage against him, and her cool and wise judgements in the cases that come before her are cleverly juxtaposed.

The link that binds these two narratives is a beautiful and and complex teenage boy whose life has been saved by one of Fiona’s judgements, who begins to stalk her. This culminates in a meeting between Fiona and the boy in the reception of a private hotel, and is stamped by a small and brief 3 second act of inexplicable and shocking recklessness initiated by the judge, eventually offering her a sort of bridge to forgiving.

As always, McEwan’s book is interspersed with essays and mini-treatises on matters great and small, but all tightly bound to the plot – the families that we destroy through selfishness, the moral quagmires in which we thrash, and the redemption and forgiveness that hover just within reach for those who can see.

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Recent comments:

  • Jennifer
    Jennifer
    November 25th, 2014 @16:23 #
     
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    I'm embarrassed to admit I've never read a McEwan. Now that I'm so behind, I'm not quite sure where to start ...

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  • Steven Boykey Sidley
    Steven Boykey Sidley
    November 26th, 2014 @08:48 #
     
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    I would start with Saturday (it is where I started), even thought he was multiple books in when that one came out.

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  • <a href="http://richarddenooy.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    November 26th, 2014 @10:05 #
     
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    Wow, the plot sounds pretty complex, but I know McEwan has the ability to weave all of the strands together to create a fascinating fabric. Much like Jennifer, I was embarrassed that I'd only ever seen movies based on his books, so I picked up Solar, which was a great read and very funny in places. Here's a link to a brief exchange about the book and McEwan: http://bookslive.co.za/bookchat/topic/richard-de-nooy-is-reading-solar-by-ian-mcewan

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    November 28th, 2014 @09:44 #
     
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    I also first encountered McEwan via film - The Comfort of Strangers. Which also introduced me to three enduring crushes: Christopher Walken, Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson (d. 2009). Whatever other roles I saw Walken in afterwards, for me they were simply reprises of his role as Robert in this film. Thrilling cinema, and it's just someone telling a story:

    http://youtu.be/WWUC6uY9q8w?t=44s

    I read the book subsequently, but prefer the film. Have subsequently only read The Cement Garden and The Innocent. Seen The Cement Garden and Atonement. Does he write to be filmed?

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  • Steven Boykey Sidley
    Steven Boykey Sidley
    November 28th, 2014 @14:55 #
     
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    I din't think so, but he has a strong visual sense in his books.

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