"The Children Act" by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese/Nan A. Talese)

Believers of a millennial bent might consider this a sign: It’s not every summer that we get two dark and serious novels focused on Jehovah’s Witnesses. The first was Scott Cheshire’s “High as the Horses’ Bridles” about a boy preacher who drifts from the faith. And now, the second coming: Ian McEwan’s “The Children Act,” which puts the church’s beliefs on trial. Surely, members of this small Christian sect would prefer, instead, to get their own hilarious Broadway musical, but authors work in mysterious ways.

The two novels have little in common, except that in both a faithless protagonist is deeply shaken by the behavior of a devout Witness. Cheshire’s debut is a roiling storm of conflicting styles and artistic energy, fueled by the author’s autobiographical demons. McEwan, who’s spent more time on the Booker shortlist than in church, has produced a svelte novel as crisp and spotless as a priest’s collar.

“The Children Act” is too long to call a novella, but it has that focused intensity and single arc. At the dramatic center of the story is Fiona Maye, a mature and well-respected British High Court judge in the Family Division. Fiona has devoted much of her career to adjudicating bloody conflicts between once-devoted husbands and wives. Every day, she observes, “Loving promises were denied or rewritten, once easy companions became artful combatants crouching behind counsel, oblivious to the costs.” In her weary astonishment at these savage ex-lovers, one can sense the expertise McEwan gained when his own divorce and custody fight spilled out into the public arena some 15 years ago. But if abusive spouses absorb the bulk of Fiona’s court time, she has also ruled famously in more wrenching matters. With efficiency and elegance so alien to legal writing, McEwan draws us through her reasoning on several cases, such as one involving conjoined twins, whose devout Catholic parents refused to give permission for them to be separated, though doing so was the only way to save one of them. Fiona appreciates that these crises are always wrenching, always murky. She’s suspicious of secular utilitarians who are “impatient of legal detail, blessed by an easy moral equation.”

Given that curriculum vitae, when the central case of this novel arrives, we know Fiona to be a conscientious jurist wholly determined to judge righteous judgment, someone who believes she brings “reasonableness to hopeless situations.”

The call comes late in the evening: A hospital requests an emergency hearing for permission to treat a young leukemia patient who refuses to accept a transfusion that could save his life. Adam Henry and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that the Bible expressly forbids “mixing your own blood with the blood of an animal or another human being.”

McEwan re-creates the hearing in the brisk style of an ultra-efficient courtroom, the testimonies and examinations proceeding apace, drained of any artificial flourish or suspense. Instead, he designs the facts to make Adam’s case as morally and legally vexed as possible: Just three months shy of his 18th birthday, Adam can already see that promised land in which his right to determine his own health care would be inviolate.

McEwan may be an atheist, but unlike his late friend Christopher Hitchens, he’s a great novelist, not a great polemicist, and he knows that there can be no tension — no art — if Adam and his parents are reduced to ignorant Bible-thumpers clad in what Hitchens called the “heavy coat of ignorance and fear.” Fiona reflects her creator’s fair regard for these Witnesses. She finds their doctor condescending and snobby. She’s sensitive to the way differences in class and education play into her approach to this case, and she knows she’s weighing one of the most fundamental human rights. “Courts should be slow to intervene in the interests of the child against the religious principles of the parents,” Fiona thinks. “Sometimes they must. But when?” Is the state so infallible and supreme that for want of 120 days, a young man should be torn from his family and his community and forced to submit to a medical procedure he abhors?

For his part, McEwan doesn’t venture much into the spiritual dimensions of this conflict. Adam’s devout parents appear only briefly; there’s little effort here to explore their beliefs. But that’s where the novel differs from its controversial premise: “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.

You see, the hospital’s petition involving Adam arrives on the very night Fiona’s husband of 35 years announces that he wants to have an affair. “I need it. I’m fifty-nine. This is my last shot,” he tells Fiona with calm and creepy candor. “I love you, but before I drop dead, I want one big passionate affair.”

In the precisely choreographed pages that follow, McEwan presents a ferociously intelligent and competent woman struggling to rule on a complex legal matter while feeling humiliated and betrayed by her husband. Beneath her formidable wisdom and accomplishments swirl all the old anxieties of loneliness and shame. Fiona knows that “to be the object of general pity was also a form of social death. The nineteenth century was closer than most women thought.” She’s spent decades training her mind to discriminate between relevant and irrelevant facts, to identify patches of fogginess and sentimentality in her thinking, but this crisis at home threatens to disrupt her carefully managed equilibrium. In that disrupted state, she’s moved by Adam’s irrepressible spirit, and she raises expectations that could either save or doom them both.

And who could blame her? In Adam, McEwan has created a captivating creature with the confidence and eery mirth of a young man hovering at the precipice. Distilled by illness, he has only his concentrated naivete left. Even as he struggles to breathe, he’s intoxicated by the fawning attention, the promise of glory, the romantic tragedy of his wasted, blue-veined body. Fiona’s encounters with him are brief, but absolutely captivating — for us and her. Can this famously careful woman be careful enough with his fragile soul to understand the true demands of his welfare?

In the end, McEwan arrives at the same conclusion Hitchens left behind, but there’s no stridency in these pages, which glide from one quietly perfect sentence to another. “The Children Act” doesn’t enact the happy triumph of humanism. Instead, it recognizes how fragile we all are and how cautious we should be about disrupting another’s well-ordered universe. As Emily Dickinson warned, “The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.” 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.

Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews appear in Style every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.


By Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 221 pp. $25