“The Children Act” by Ian McEwan (2014) – book review

Oops, broke my resolve and bought this latest slim tome at the airport, dropping my boy back off on his return ‘home’ (agh, dagger to heart) to university life – it’s always a very dangerous thing to buy even a stick of chewing gum in such circumstances, as the temptation to purchase a consolatory new book is really all too impossible to resist…

Have just put this novel down and feel numbed.

Ian McEwan’s books have been a bit ‘hit and miss’ for me over the years – sometimes I am blown away (“Atonement”, “Enduring Love”, for example), other times I have felt short-changed (“On Chesil Beach”, “The Cement Garden”), and in fact I still have “Solar” and “Sweet Tooth” sitting patiently waiting to be opened. 

Agree wholeheartedly with the Evening Standard that this is “Classic McEwan…It’s a pleasure from start to finish, one not to be interrupted”. Read almost uninterruptedly from cover to cover over the weekend, and was 100% gripped from page 1 to page 213. I don’t agree with any of the occasional negative reviews briefly perused after finishing the book, and didn’t find it cold, clinical or unconvincing. This may be in part because I was not expecting the personal background of our almost narrator to strike such a chord in me. Her current situation forms part and parcel of the main thrust of the tale about a young Jehovah’s Witness’s desire to refuse a blood transfusion that could save his life, and High Court Judge Fiona’s decision-taking and reactions to meeting him cannot be dislocated from her husband’s unexpected declarations as the book opens.

I enjoyed McEwan’s recounting of the many examples in today’s society, where the law is called upon to define the guidelines for so many issues concerning children in this generation, but above all I couldn’t help but admire his careful description of a very middle-aged (is 60 still middle-aged? I like to think so) woman in crisis :

“While his back was turned to her she had a cold premonition of rejection, of the humiliation of being left for a younger woman, of being left behind, useless and alone…Self-pity in others embarrassed her, and she wouldn’t have it now. She was having a third drink instead”.

“She slid open his wardrobe and with a wifely eye calculated that he had taken three jackets…he must have taken great care going along the hall without her hearing, and closed the front door inch by deceitful inch”.

This male author bravely contemplates every woman’s worst nightmarish yet very pragmatic fears:

“Then there was age…His white chest hair, of which he remained proud…shanks less muscular…the eyes holding a gentle hint of future vacancy…So what then of her ankles thickening in coquettish reply, her backside swelling like summer cumulus, her waist waxing stout as her gums receded?”.

As one who has had first hand experience of tumbling into such painful territory, don’t believe he hits a single discordant note. I have put this work down, and Ian McEwan is restored as a Top Author in my humble book. He has portrayed an intelligent woman doing a difficult job and manoeuvering her way through life as best she can in a way I found compelling, credible and admirable. Many of the issues he raises are going to stay with me for a very long time. So that makes this read :

A FAVOURITE BOOK – rating 10/10

Image taken from here.
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31 Responses to “The Children Act” by Ian McEwan (2014) – book review

  1. Pingback: Hot off the Press April 2015 | Literary ramblings etc

  2. Julie says:

    There you go again…convincing me to rush out and buy this book. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. susan says:

    Yes, you have persuaded me, I have been holding back, but the examples of the ‘older’ woman’s feelings that you pick out have helped to make me curious! Have shared your review with my bookclub’s facebook page also.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Susan – keen to hear what you think of it, and to find out what your book club is reading next??? Nx


  5. susan says:

    We are reading ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ Susanna Clarke. It is my choice and there has been some moaning as it is over 1000 pages long! But I had to choose it as I was captivated from start to finish and wanted to talk about it with the group, there is to be a BBC dramatisation of it in May, which was another reason to get it read now. The book before that was ‘The Sisters Brothers’ Patrick Dewitt. x

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Susan, a good friend has the Jonathon Strange book listed in her Top 10, and I have a second hand copy on the shelves with very small print, so between that and the number of pages have managed to keep it off my “Read Next” pile for several years – perhaps wrongly?? Let me know when you have finished it, happy to learn there is a BBC series coming up – but that’s also a frustration as usually prefer to try and read something before I watch it at the cinema/on the TV, argh. Keep me posted. Adding the Dewitt book also to the Wish List. Thanks, Susan, Nx


    • susan says:

      Definitely read JS&MN! I read it in 2 weeks as I was so enthralled. Like you, It was on a to read list until a friend informed me of the tv series up and coming and it just had to be done. It is also in my top list of books I would say. I will let you know what the group say!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you – I cannot wait to start it.
    Had a peek at the forthcoming BBC adaptation and gosh it is Eddie Marsan who is to play Mr Norrell – and just this week saw him in the “Still Life” film. He was quite brilliant, and says very exciting things about this project, so am suitably thrilled this end too! Let me know what the book group thinks, Nx


  8. susan says:

    and another thing…….. you may hate me for this but in case you have not read the excellent (in my opinion) ‘The Luminaries’ another BIG book, it is also being made into a BBC drama for tv, not as imminent as JS&MN though!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. There is no end to it……………………..I also have TL in the house, needless to say…x


  10. McEwan is a hit-and-miss author for me too but I enjoyed this one. Sweet Tooth is my favourite recent McEwan novel but I’d give Solar a miss…

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi, am adding “Sweet Tooth” to the Wish List posthaste, might leave “Solar” till later then. Thanks for the comment, x


  12. susan says:

    Thanks to your review, Nicola, I have read The Children’s Act and it was a start to finish kind of read I agree. I enjoyed it and it moved me despite the unemotional text. Given the chance I would like to ask Ian McEwan why the mother was not cross examined? Surely she would have had something of interest to add on the subject of her son’s life or death. I was a tad disappointed that the story went into stalker territory, a device that worked fabulously well in Enduring Love, but was not needed here I feel. I have the Waterstone’s copy and it has a note on the text by the author who mentions the real cases that inspired the book, they were sufficient at pulling the heart and head without the added relationship discretions. All that said, Fiona is a wonderful character beautifully realised, I enjoyed her tremendously. So thank you, as I would not have got around to it as I too have Sweet Tooth in a waiting pile!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Susan, am on page 410 of Mr Norrell. Wishing I had a book with bigger, bolder print – the footnotes are the very devil to read. Am not a fan of magic realism or fantasy works, so was sure the tale of all things magical would not be my cup of tea at all – but I am really getting my teeth into it now! Can’t find the dates for when the BBC adaptation begins, but it has to be some time in May – do you know any more?
    Re the mother in TCA, I think I.McE purposely didn’t go down that route, as he explored the child-almost-man relationship more (??) – and felt while reading that the parents’ opinions were in some way immaterial – but is true that is a fault of the the book that somewhat two-dimensional in parts. Also, maybe it was to show that Fiona was acting slightly out of character in this particular situation? The jury’s out… Nx


  14. susan says:

    I hope you enjoy the journey! The TV version will be sometime in may, the BBC are showing trailers now. Just as an aside I can’t seem to ‘like’ a comment and I don’t wish to seem rude or inattentive! x

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Hi, you are neither! Which comment is it?


  16. laura says:

    I really liked this book, but yes, it did leave me feeling a little numb also. I’m not sure whether I was confused, challenged or quite what by the ending! I should probably read it again.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Hi Laura, thanks for your comments – it’s certainly not a book with a clean ‘happy ending’ style! but then we wouldn’t expect that from this author, I suppose. I did feel that it rang true in the sense that real life is rarely cut and dry either. Let me know if you do revisit it….


  18. susan says:

    Any comment! I may be being dense, do I have to subscribe to the wordpress blog site? I get e mails from you of new posts. S x

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hi Susan, do you know, I have no idea…. Daisy keeps telling me “it’s all about the likes”, but it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder if that was only possible for WordPress bloggers. This is when I miss my son the most (obviously don’t mean that), as if he still lived at home he would answer this in a jiffy and resolve the whole dilemma. I will endeavour to find out. In the meantime, pressing on with the Napoleonic wars and Jonathon Strange! Nxx


  20. susan says:


    Liked by 1 person

  21. !!! Like that you liked it !!! Daisy reckons only WordPress account holders can ‘like’ pages. Will check with a friend who has a brilliant WP blog, 365thingsiloveaboutfrance… x


  22. Megan says:

    I’m coming a bit late to the table here, but I have also just finished ‘The Children Act’ which I couldn’t put down. I wasn’t going to buy it, as reviews have been a bit lukewarm and also, I liked but was a bit disappointed by Sweet Tooth. I agree with you about his more recent books being a bit hit or miss. For me they miss the poetic intensity of his earlier stuff (when he earned the nickname Ian Macabre!). But I thought TCA was amazing, particularly how he got inside the head of a woman. I admire writers who choose protagonists of a different gender, class, age than their own. And I love his sparse writing style. TCA is the sort of book that I feel like going back over to ANALYSE, tear apart and make notes on how exactly it works because he does it so well. I also like the length. Too many books these days are way too long for my waning attention span!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Hi Megan, thanks for your comments – so completely agree about Ian Macabre (will never be able to think of him as anything other from now on) getting inside Fiona’s head so well – that was absolutely what caught me too. We have just read the Chimamanda N A short stories at the book group, where someone is writing from the heart about what she knows well, sort of the opposite end of the spectrum, but they both manage it so well. Ah, the joys of literature. Here’s to more of the same, xx


  24. Trish says:

    This book should carry a health warning: finding it un-put-down-able, I finished reading it this at 4am this morning. Absolutely a 10/10. Like Megan, I now need to re-read it to savour his incisive and insightful ( was he female is his former life?) writing and to understand why I found it so compelling. Great choice for next month’s book group.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Pingback: Reading Challenge from January 2015 | Literary ramblings etc

  26. Julie says:

    I was disappointed by the ending. I found it implausible that Runcie would whisper the dramatic news in Fiona’s ear as she was climbing the steps to go on stage to perform. And didn’t it all end rather prematurely?

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Do you know by the time I got to the latter back of the book I confess I was racing and turning the pages and was so swept up by the general whole that I didn’t feel any of your frustration or disappointment. Had taken that leap of faith that kept the whole thing together for me. But can see that the ending could be considered flawed – it is going to be an interesting book group discussion later in the month… Nx


  28. Pingback: Book Group I – Paris Evening Group | Literary ramblings etc

  29. Donna says:

    “Atonement” is in my January list, and this review had me adding this one up to next month’s!

    Liked by 1 person

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