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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Children Act

Ian McEwan

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To purchase The Children Act

Title: The Children Act
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 221 pages
Availability: The Children Act - US
The Children Act - UK
The Children Act - Canada
L'intérêt de l'enfant - France
Kindeswohl - Deutschland
La ballata di Adam Henry - Italia
La ley del menor - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine character study

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly A- 3/9/2014 Stephan Lee
Financial Times . 12/9/2014 Jon Day
The Guardian . 11/9/2014 Tessa Hadley
The Independent . 26/8/2014 Boyd Tonkin
Independent on Sunday A 31/8/2014 Amanda Craig
Literary Review B- 9/2014 Sam Leith
The LA Times A 4/9/2014 Mona Simpson
London Rev. of Books . 11/9/2014 Theo Tait
New Statesman . 28/8/2014 Leo Robson
The NY Times . 15/9/2014 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/9/2014 Deborah Friedell
The Observer . 6/8/2014 Kate Kellaway
Publishers Weekly . 7/7/2014 .
The Spectator F 6/9/2014 Cressida Connolly
Sunday Times . 31/8/2014 Camilla Cavendish
The Telegraph C 3/9/2014 James Walton
The Times . 30/8/2014 John Sutherland
Wall St. Journal A 5/9/2014 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post A 3/9/2014 Ron Charles

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus at all -- with those that think it's more about Fiona preferring it to those who think its about the legal/moral case at hand

  From the Reviews:
  • "The consequences aren't as violent as those that befall McEwan's protagonists in Saturday and Solar, but Fiona's experience is no less haunting in this brief but substantial addition to the author's oeuvre." - Stephan Lee, Entertainment Weekly

  • "This ought to be rich subject matter. The problem is the novel's prose seems not so much to imitate the flow of Fiona's experience, as to offer a fairly pedestrian summary. (...) Realism seems beside the point after a while: it's more like being inside the workings of an allegory or a parable." - Tessa Hadley, The Guardian

  • "As compact, focused and elegant as one of Fiona’s own judgments, The Children Act sticks by and large to her perspective. (...) The Children Act shares the virtues of its heroine -- and, you might argue, some of her strict-tempo limitations too. Fiona, the purest recruit to McEwan’s line of wounded healers and flawed arbiters, makes us feel the frequent agony and fleeting ecstasy of institutional authority. Although thrillingly close to the child within us, McEwan nonetheless writes for, and about, the grown-ups." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Fiona is beautifully drawn, so much so that one often has the sense of meeting one’s own thoughts and feelings. (...) In short: this novel is not as good as McEwan’s Atonement, but what modern novel is ? Though not itself perfect, his eighth novel embodied a high-water mark in modern (and Modernist) fiction; The Children Act, with its sly allusions to many of the author’s own past works, seems inferior only when comparing this to his own oeuvre -- and to his contemporaries’." - Amanda Craig, Independent on Sunday

  • "(A)ll that background research, that actuality, that reportage has the strange effect of diminishing rather than increasing the novel's urgency: just like that self-conscious first sentence, it takes the reader out of the story. You're witnessing a performance rather than submitting to a piece of storytelling. (...) The whole assemblage still feels, by Ian McEwan's own highest standards, a little bit thin." - Sam Leith, Literary Review

  • "(A) quietly exhilarating book. This short novel does a particularly hard thing: It chronicles the recalibration of a 30-year marriage after it has fallen out of balance." - Mona Simpson, The Los Angeles Times

  • "As a writer, McEwan is open to all sorts of charges but underplaying his characters’ occupations isn’t among them. In his hand­ling, Fiona is less a lawyer – day in, day out – than a vehicle for exploring the quandaries thrown up by her profession (.....) The Children Act is distinguished from McEwan’s previous books in executing an argument about rival world-views that doesn’t facilitate a charged and twisting narrative. It is a sign of his growing confidence as an allegorist that he gets the job done so quickly. But where’s the joy ?" - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "(S)uspenseful but very spindly (.....) The suspense in the last half of the book (unlike that in the novel’s opening chapters) is genuine, because it stems not from artificially concocted plot points, but because it goes to the question of who Fiona really is, and whether she has learned anything from earlier events about herself or the human yearning for connection." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "This vagueness makes the novel seem more allegorical than real, a kind of fable about Faith versus Science and the State. I wonder if McEwan’s ­Jehovah’s Witnesses remain vague because they are really standing in for something else, which he felt unable to write about directly. (...) A newcomer to McEwan will find little here to indicate why his reputation as a storyteller is so tremendous." - Deborah Friedell, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Fiona's unhappy private life serves as a helplessly ironic subtext to her professional decisions. (...) He keeps us tensely guessing -- everything hingeing on Fiona's decision about the boy. And it will not spoil the plot to say that this is a novel which, above all, considers what it might mean to be saved -- and not in the queasy sense in which Jehovah's witnesses have claimed the word." - Kate Kellaway, The Observer

  • "He rejects religious dogma that lacks compassion, but scrutinizes secular morality as well. Readers may dispute his most pessimistic inferences, but few will deny McEwan his place among the best of Britain’s living novelists." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Had the boy been an acne sufferer whose only interest was violent computer games, this might have been a better novel. As it is, there is a chronic lack of dramatic tension. Such material would have been better suited to a long piece of investigative journalism than to fiction. (...) On a sentence-by-sentence basis, the writing is poor, the characterisation scant and lazy." - Cressida Connolly, The Spectator

  • "Of course, it’s impossible to disagree with McEwan’s contention that in a civilised society, the well-being of children must outweigh their parents’ religious convictions. None the less, if a novel is structured like a debate, the writer should surely at least try to give the other side some good lines (.....) (I)t does rather confirm the theory that, except for Atonement, the second halves of McEwan’s novels are less successful than the first." - James Walton, The Telegraph

  • "However unresolved the novel's moral inquiries, its sense of life-and-death urgency never wavers. It marks a welcome return to form for Mr. McEwan." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "The Children Act is not primarily about religious radicalism or the conflict between faith and science; it’s about the way a woman’s well-ordered life is shaken by a confluence of youthful passion and old betrayal. (...) Given its odd subject matter, this is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite McEwan novel, but with its mix of arcane expertise, emotional intensity and especially its attention to the ever-surprising misdirections of the heart, it’s another notable volume from one of the finest writers alive." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Children Act centers almost entirely on Fiona Maye, a successful and respected High Court judge in the Family Division, where she deals with family proceedings cases and those regarding minors. Now fifty-nine, she is a married career woman who never quite could find the time or circumstances to have children of her own. Husband Jack seems to have made a decent companion, but he's been neither as successful nor is he as driven -- working now on: "his Virgil book, an introduction and selection, a "worldwide" textbook for schools and universities which, he touchingly believed, would make his fortune" -- while she decides others' fates daily, sometimes even on questions of life or death itself.
       The novel begins with a domestic crisis: Jack surprises her by taking a stand, expressing dissatisfaction with his backseat role in their marriage. Specifically, what he's missing is sex, and if Fiona won't oblige -- they haven't even bothered to have sex in ages, and he regards their marriage as one where they now resemble siblings more than husband and wife -- he's going to have an affair. Apparently he's already set everything in motion, but he figured he'd give her a heads-up. Fiona is not pleased -- though she has to admit he has a bit of a point regarding their (lack of a) sex life.
       This certainly shakes up their marriage, and the aftereffects of Jack's action reverberate for the rest of the novel, even as his hope for that: "one big passionate affair" don't exactly pan out in the way he had hoped. But the focus of the story -- unsurprisingly, given Fiona's devotion to her job over her marriage -- is elsewhere, on a case Fiona has to deal with. It begins with some urgency: Adam Henry, raised as a Jehovah's Witness and just a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday, is in hospital with leukemia. Effective treatment necessitates blood transfusions, but his parents won't give permission for the still-minor to be treated this way; their religion forbids it. The hospital has made an emergency application to force the issue; time is of the essence: if not properly treated soon Adam will suffer and very likely die.
       Since the boy is almost eighteen, his views also matter, and in the course of proceedings Fiona even goes to visit him and sound him out. Obviously under the influence of his parents and their church, he's a lively, bright teenager -- who cheerfully toes the (religious-)party line, arguably not knowing any better ("His childhood has been an uninterrupted monochrome exposure to a forceful view of the world and he cannot fail to have been conditioned by it", as Fiona notes in her judgment).
       Adam's welfare is her judicial paramount concern, and she decides accordingly. But it's a big decision; understandably she easily loses sight of that quite quickly -- she has a lot on her plate, after all -- but not so the affected. When real life intrudes, in a way she can not simply deal with by rendering a legally binding decision from the bench, she's caught a bit short, not sure of how to with a situation suddenly much more close at hand. As she realizes too late, the welfare of others can't simply be settled and fixed by decree.
       The Children Act is a fine character study of a late-mid-life crisis. Fiona, who often acts essentially in loco parentis, whether for her visiting nieces and nephews, or for the children whose fates she decides at court, missed her own chance at parenthood -- and seems to have missed even creating a traditional family unit, her husband noting that they have come to be like brother and sister, rather than husband and wife. Fiona's lack of more personal experience in these regards, McEwan seems to suggest, has its consequences
       A mind-person, Fiona isn't good at intimacy and seems barely interested in traditional human contact (going through the sociable motions where necessary, but hardly connecting with anyone); unsurprisingly:

     Not having a body, floating free of physical constraint, would have suited her best
       For both Fiona and Adam music is an escape, which McEwan uses and presents effectively. Art offers succor -- the opening scene mentions Fiona's "tiny Renoir lithograph" (though, in a nice and appropriate touch, it's: "Probably a fake") -- but Fiona isn't even sufficiently open to all art's meaning, failing, fatally, to read deep enough into a poem by Adam.
       The Children Act is a tidy, small novel -- perhaps too tidy in its plotting (Adam's convenient age; a religious-legal dispute that, given current norms (and laws), isn't very complicated; Jack's convenient (if unrealistic) wish: "I'd like a sex life") but artfully unspooled. It's a good, absorbing read and, like Fiona's piano-playing in concert, McEwan does more than just strike the right notes. There's a bit of forced gravitas to it all -- the life-and-death questions, the almost entirely cerebral Fiona -- but the novel doesn't get too weighed down by all the heavy issues.
       McEwan does seem to be trying to make an issue-novel out of it at times -- beginning with the title ... -- but The Children Act's success comes not in how it grapples with that issue but as a character study

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 August 2014

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The Children Act: Reviews: Ian McEwan: Other books by Ian McEwan under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Ian McEwan is the author of many fine novels. He won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam in 1998.

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