Fiona Maye has had a long and successful career as a High Court judge. She works in the Family Division, deciding what is best for children in messy divorce cases and matters of religion. Professionally, Fiona is “almost ironic, almost warm,” and she is respected for striking a balance between compassion and distance, understanding and objectivity. But after years of parents “dazed to find themselves in vicious combat with the one they once loved” and children used as “bargaining chips,” Fiona has become ever so slightly disillusioned.
Fiona’s last case, involving conjoined twins born to Catholic parents, has left her exhausted. One evening, she is blindsided by her husband’s announcement that he wants to have one last love affair before it’s too late. Jack informs Fiona that they have not had sex “for seven weeks and a day,” and that they act more like siblings than husband and wife. He doesn’t want a divorce; he just wants her blessing before he proceeds. Jack thinks he is being reasonable and candid. Unsurprisingly, Fiona disagrees and asks him to leave.
Hurt and angry, Fiona moves on to her next case, that of a teenaged Jehovah’s Witness refusing a potentially life-saving blood transfusion. Adam is just three months shy of turning 18, and he insists that his choice is his own, unaffected by his parents or religious community. His doctors want to move forward with the operation against his wishes. Fiona, perhaps eager for a distraction, makes an unusual visit to the hospital. She finds Adam to be “lovely,” a true Romantic in the tradition of John Keats. Will Fiona understand what is best for this boy, and will she make the right decision?
John le Carré once wrote that spies are mistakenly thought of as “priests, saints, and martyrs.” That belief could also apply to judges, doctors, or anyone with a specialized and/or powerful profession. Such people do not magically arrive at the right answer but are influenced by their beliefs, education, history, and circumstances. And sometimes they screw up. Ian McEwan explores this by drawing an intimate portrait of an older woman with all her thoughts, memories, and emotions. The Children Act is so intently focused, so self-contained, that despite being 221 pages it feels much more like a short story.