There’s a running joke amongst my closest friends that you should never let me choose your holiday read. I’ll be in charge of the light, summery books to read in the sun and by the end of the week everyone is crying and all the characters are inexplicably dead. And yet once again I’m left to pack the books for our trip away next week.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan has been on my to read pile for a while now and even I was fairly certain it wouldn’t be an uplifting holiday read. So it became my newest commute book where a cover photo of drizzly London is more appropriate. I’ve been trying to read more authors that I’d always seen hovering on the peripheral of my bookcase but I’d never really delved into and this one fit the bill. I tried reading Atonement when I was younger and only got two chapters in, and no way into the plot, before my Kindle broke and so Mt McEwan’s style of writing was almost completely unknown to me.
I liked it, just not at first, and I loved it by the end.
The main character, Fiona, is a nearly 60, highly respected, High Court judge. Her domain is the family courts and the bulk of the novel concerns her dealings with the case of a 17 year old Jehovah’s Witness refusing a blood transfusion that will prevent him from dying a painful, but imminent, death. The plot was equally slow moving and hard hitting with much of the first half taking part over the course of 48 hours. I found there was a lot of exposition, a lot of legal jargon that could have made it unbearable, but it made Fiona strangely relatable to laymen-terms-at-best me. I understood her plight in a way I wouldn’t have done without it. My gut reaction to religious parents arguing over whether their daughters should receive an education would be ‘of course, why is this even a debate?’ but through Fiona’s eyes these issues become a lot less clear cut.
And all the inner debate and uncertainty in the book makes it far less predictable than I first thought. I didn’t know until the last second what Fiona’s verdict would be. I especially didn’t guess the ending, which affected me a lot more than I had guessed it would halfway in. It was a stare-at-your-bedroom-ceiling-for-a-while ending that I was not expecting, which I think says a lot about Ian McEwan’s writing; that he was able to take a controversial and tragic concept and take the reader through a story that is never bleak, only optimistic and then gut-wrenching.
I cared a lot about Fiona by the end of the book. Her childlessness, her marriage failing, her emotional connection to cases that will ultimately be her undoing. None of it was over done, all of it sensitive and believable.
Frankly, I need to raid second hand bookshops for more of his books and would highly recommend this one.