The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

This is quite a short book – I read it in one evening. But it is the sort of book that stays with you.

It’s about Fiona, a High Court (Family Division) judge. Her husband of many years decides he wants to have an affair with a much younger woman – and wants her permission for it – and the same evening, an urgent case is dropped on her. A young man, three months short of his 18th birthday, has leukaemia and is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion because he and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses.

A person under 18 can consent to medical treatment if they understand the implications (Gillick competence), but their refusal can be overridden in their best interests by a court order.

Despite appearances, this book is not about the nitty-gritty of choice, self-determination, and so on. There is no in-depth treatment of the moral and ethical implications of parents refusing consent to life-saving treatment for their children for religious reasons, or even about whether it is ethical to deny the right to choose to a young person who is only three months short of his 18th birthday. The book is, instead, about the way Fiona deals with the case and its aftermath, and the consequences of her choices and actions.

This is one of those books where you have no real doubt how it’s going to end – the interest is in how that endpoint is reached, and the journey you make in getting there.

Right from the start, I liked Fiona. I cared about her, I wanted her to be happy, and I respected her dedication to the law and her duties as a high court judge. But McEwan also wrote – very well – an adult’s dismissal of a child’s (or young person’s) feelings. Oh, they’ll grow out of it. But, as many parents find – too late – young people’s troubles may seem minor to an adult with a wider worldview and greater experience, but they’re pretty shattering to the young person concerned. How many adults have failed to take a child’s problems seriously until too late?

Fiona, of course, doesn’t make all the right choices – it wouldn’t be a very good story if she did. But even as we, the readers, can see the road she is travelling along and where it is likely leading, we know that Fiona can’t. She makes the choices that seem right and good at the time, and it’s only later that she realises where and how and why it went wrong.

In the end, I suppose the book is about responsibility: when you rearrange someone else’s life for them (particularly without their consent), you had better have a care for the consequences – which may be more far-reaching and unpredictable than you expect.

This book will join the very select list of my favourites.

If you want to know which legislation and cases are mentioned in the book, I’ve added the book to my list of Law in Literature examples here.


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