Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Children Act by Ian McEwan (2014)

When I was younger, I loved Ian McEwan. I first read him during the long dark final weeks of my Honours year, where in an effort to gain a bit of sanity and perspective I had escaped to the fiction section of my university's library and grabbed the first book from an author who wasn't dead who I had heard of. The book was Atonement, and I loved it. I then promptly devoured Black Dogs and Enduring Love. I was mesmerised by Saturday - I wanted to roll around in the prose of that one eventful day that in fact told the story of an entire life. But then, the McEwan-HereIRead love affair came to a crashing halt with the publication of On Chesil Beach. I bought this "book" for full price from a reputable bookseller, only to take it home and realise it was the novel equivalent of the first-year essay I'd submitted with 2.5-line spacing and 5cm margins, hoping the lecturer wouldn't notice that it was about half of its expected length (they did). On Chesil Beach is a short story padded out (and charged like!) a full novel based on some clever typesetting and a lot of blank pages. Even worse, it is a stupid story. I felt both ripped off and cross. Despite this, I still bought Solar when it came out. Just to give you an idea what type of story Solar is, there is a chapter where the protagonist thinks his penis has fallen off but in fact what fell off was (I think) the lid of a tube of lip balm. Stupid stupid stupid. I didn't even end up finishing it. I am clearly a slow learner, because I gave McEwan one more chance with Sweet Tooth. With a much kinder than I would be today two-star review, I was done with McEwan.

That is, until I watched last month's ABC's The Book Club. Marieke Hardy described Ian McEwan as that old boyfriend you feel fond about but forget how crap they are until you give them a call to talk to them again. I agreed with her completely! So when said that that his new novel, The Children Act, was wonderful, I picked it up.

The best I can say about this book is that it's not completely awful. Much like Saturday and Solar, we see the whole book through the eyes of a single character, in this case Fiona Maye, a High Court judge. When the book opens, she is reeling from the shock of her husband telling her he wants to have an affair because they haven't had sex for seven weeks and one day. She says no, he moves out and then she has to make rulings on a number of difficult decisions, including whether or not to rule that doctors can separate Siamese twins when the separation means certain death for one boy but not separating them means both twins will die and whether or not to override the wishes of a Jehovah's Witness boy who is 17 years and 9 months old and refusing a life-saving blood transfusion.

The Children Act is written very well because McEwan writes very good prose but, again, as with On Chesil Beach, the plot is just so stupid. No-one jeopardises a 30-year marriage because they haven't had sex for seven weeks but McEwan's characters act like this is a reasonable course of action for an educated couple whose professions are based on communication to take. Reading this book made me feel like McEwan hasn't actually spoken to any real people for a long time because actual humans just don't act like the characters in his novel do. Plus, let's be honest - McEwan is a massive elitist snob who doesn't like women very much. His contempt for women and the lower classes leaps off the page, not even barely disguised. It was quite surprising how obvious it was (although not surprising in and of itself).

Not a terrible book but I don't want to contribute to encouraging anyone to read it, so two stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment