The Children Act

Ian McEwan‘s latest, The Children Act, is a short novel about Fiona Maye, a seasoned judge in the Family Division  of the High Courts in London.

Ever since she  was a young girl, Fiona had always been serious, stable, and fiercely ambitious.  As a young lawyer, she worked hard to rise through the ranks of the male dominated field.  Now 60 years old, she is known among her colleagues in the legal world for  her probity and integrity when passing judgment or dispensing Justice. As a judge in the Family Division, Fiona hears cases on all domestic matters, including marital disputes, child custody, and other issues concerning the welfare and well-being of children and minors.  It is her responsibility to uphold the Family Division’s mandate to protect children and to make decisions based on their best interest.  Over the years, Fiona has heard all types of cases involving minors, and have had her fair share of controversial judgments.

Though a champion of children’s rights, Fiona is  herself childless. Married to Jack Maye, a university professor for some 40 odd years, they never really found the right time to have children of their own.  Both were busy with their own careers in the early stages of their marriage, and later received promotions to higher, desired positions, until finally, Fiona couldn’t imagine how she could fit a child in her life; how she would be able to manage caring for an infant while practicing law.  Now well past child-bearing age, Fiona and Jack enjoy the occasional visits from young nieces, nephews, grand-nieces, grand-nephews.

Fiona has enjoyed a relatively stable and good life and career, until recently, when her husband threatened to destroy their marriage by declaring that, because of their almost non-existent sex life, he would, with her knowledge and consent, have an affair with a younger woman.  Almost at the same time, Fiona was given a case involving the fate of a young Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia who refused to undergo a blood transfusion because it was against his religion.  Lawyers and doctors representing the State and the hospital argued that a blood transfusion was necessary to save the boy’s life, while the lawyers representing the parents and guardian of the boy argued that because the boy was almost 18 years old, the age of majority, he could decide for himself, and being a highly intelligent young man, he had expressed his intentions not to  have a blood transfusion because it goes against the teachings of his religion.  Curious to meet the young man for herself, Fiona decides to visit him in the hospital to gauge his capacity to decide his own fate.  Instead of a frail, sickly boy, what she found is a lucid, intelligent, talented young man, hungry for life and intelligent conversation.  After spending an hour with the young man, Fiona weighs all the information presented to her and makes a decision based on what she deemed was the young man’s best interest.  Little did she know how much her decision would affect not only the young man, but also her life.

The Children Act, like some of McEwan’s other novels, focuses on its characters’ humanness and personal struggles;  McEwan is a master when it comes to depicting the many different aspects of human emotion and nature.  In The Children Act, Fiona, while dedicating her life to fixing the domestic problems of others, is barely able to keep her marriage together after Jack’s brief infidelity. Though seemingly calm, composed, and wise when dispensing justice, Fiona is in fact haunted by many past cases, sometimes questioning the judgments she had passed. As a judge, she is able to perform her duties in upholding the values of the family and the welfare of children, but in real life, she is far removed from the messy, noisy, chaotic scenes of domestic life, living in a secluded community among professional peers and colleagues. Though seemingly infallible, she has made many mistakes in the past;  she is a High Court judge, but she is still also just a human being.

The Children Act is a quite, somber novel that focuses mostly on Fiona as an accomplished judge, but also as a woman – her fears, insecurities, hopes, and regrets.  Unlike McEwan’s other novels, The Children Act doesn’t have an incredible, earth-shaking twist toward the end, but it will lead readers to think about the consequences of the different choices they make each day and the effect their actions might have on other people.


The Children Act (2014) – Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese Doubleday; 240 pages

Personal rating:  3/5

4 thoughts on “The Children Act

    • I didn’t really have any expectations going in except that, yes, there might be a twist at the end that would completely change everything, but though the end wasn’t what I really expected, I still liked it. It’s not the kind of book I would rave about or readily recommend, but it is still a good book nonetheless.


  1. The only McEwan I’ve read so far is Atonement, but I need to read more of his work! What would you recommend reading next — this book or one of his older novels?

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