The Children Act

by Ian McEwan

A short but brilliantly executed novel.  The story is gripping, the plot believable, disturbing, and so tightly told that you don’t need to read ahead or try to second-guess what will happen (though I did both).

The story opens with the main character Fiona Maye, who we are told in the first paragraph is a High Court judge, experiencing some kind of trauma in her emotional life.  We gradually find out what is the cause of her distress, and the novel takes us through Fiona’s analysis of the cases she tries and the unfolding of her own marital problems.  At no point does the reader feel compelled to take sides with either Fiona or her husband Jack.  They are, like the couple in another compact McEwan tale On Chesil Beach, caught up in the cause-and-effect drama of almost any relationship.

Fiona’s work is an important part of the story, and the reader is left to work out to what extent her work influences her personal life (a lot, probably) and to what extent her personal life influences her work (can she be impartial in her judgments when her marriage is in crisis?). McEwan has clearly done his research, and I found the descriptions of family law cases that reach the High Court, and the factors influencing the judgments, fascinating to learn about and also to reflect upon.

I could come back to this novel again and again.  I think McEwan’s best work inhabits a part of one’s consciousness – perhaps because the issues he addresses are both personal and troubling, and encourage us to reflect on our own life decisions.

The Innocent

by Ian McEwan

Selected by my book group.

As in many of McEwan’s books, the story is disturbing.  A seemingly random event changes the life of the main character forever, and he deals with his own feelings about the event: guilt, shame, an inability to prevent things from unravelling.  This seems to be a common thread in McEwan’s novels.  The ‘happy ending’ that is hinted at seems to me to be even more unlikely than the events of the main narrative.

I found the middle chapters, with the fight scene and then the dismembering of the body, almost too gruesome.  I confess that I skim-read these chapters, hardly daring to look at the page.  I think this is partly because McEwan draws the reader in, with minutely described and very vivid settings.  So when he is describing something shocking, you feel as though you are in the room.

Leonard is the ‘innocent’ of the title, in several ways.  He is sexually inexperienced at the start of the narrative, and falls ravenously into the arms of the experienced Maria.  He is politically naïve as concerns the relationship between the British and American occupying powers.  Both he and Maria seem innocently to believe that they will get away with their plan to dispose of Otto’s body (which in fact they do, though not in the way they had intended).  The story is told from Leonard’s point of view, but the reader is not necessarily swept along by his reasoning, and the scenes where Leonard is tramping round Berlin with two enormous suitcases full of body parts are so grotesque that they are also quite funny.

I think this is an excellent book group choice, as it offers plenty to discuss.  I found the gory bits so repellent, however, that I would only recommend it to readers with a strong stomach!

6/10