That being the case, it can’t be denied that it is a betrayal of trust and affection – that betrayal being all the more stinging if it has been premeditated. But what happens when it’s an unforeseen betrayal? When a spouse or partner finds themselves falling into a relationship that they did not see coming, one that they did not wish to enter into? And what if despite all your decisions not to act on that affection, that affection keeps growing anyway? Is it still infidelity? Is it still a deception?
These are the questions that Ian McEwan opens up in his latest novel The Children Act. His protagonist, Fiona Maye, a judge at the peak of her career, finds herself facing one of the more difficult cases she has come across: a young man suffering from a deadly form of cancer is refusing a blood transfusion on religious grounds, and it is up to Fiona to decide what is best for him. Complicating matters further is her unraveling relationship with her long time husband, who is now requesting that their relationship be a non-committal one: though he still loves Fiona, he wishes to engage in affairs as he feels sexually unsatisfied. To Fiona, this is unthinkable – how can he say he loves her and still presume to hurt her?
Not only must Fiona confront the question of still loving her husband, she must also decide whether she is brave enough to endure the aftermath of their relationship’s end. After a lifetime of having someone at her side, Fiona recoils at the thought of having to brave the pity and shame that will inevitably shadow her once their separation is made known. McEwan shows how bravery is a prerequisite for almost every decision in such a situation. There is bravery in facing the truth, but there is also bravery in facing the truth publicly – no doubt, many of the offended party are willing to turn a blind eye if only to preserve their reputation.
As Fiona works on her case, she visits the young man, Adam, in an effort to gauge his emotional and intellectual capability. And when she does she finds that they share a connection that she cannot quite explain – a connection that Adam is not happy to relinquish as quickly as she is. It becomes almost an obsession on Adam’s part, and despite her precautions Fiona finds herself feeling guilty – as guilty as she believes her husband is.
The Children Act is a short novel – it’s almost a long short story that was extended into a novella. The ending leaves you with even more questions, only emphasizing the complexity of life and death and the relationships we try to forge in between. Despite the thought-provoking material, I didn’t find it a satisfying read. It’s a bit too open-ended and confusing for me, and considering the depth of the themes, I felt the tackling of them could have been more extended. If it had been a short story then the brief examination would have been expected. In any case, it provides a lot of food for thought, and I’d recommend it to anyone wanting to sink their teeth into some moral study.