Ian McEwan / Jonathan Cape
Ian McEwan / Jonathan Cape Recently, in an essay gleefully jammed with spade-calling prickle, Will Self took aim at the quality of Englishness that has elevated George Orwell to the state of sainthood for his defence of plain-speaking Anglo Saxon English. “Each generation of talented English mediocrities,” Self complained, “seizes upon one of their number and elevates her or him to become primus inter pares. Of course, these figures may not, in fact, be talented mediocrities at all, but rather genuinely adept and acute. However, what’s important is that they either play to the dull and cack-handed gallery, or that those who sit there see in them their own run-of-the-mill reflection.” Self’s tilt at giant killing gave me pause to wonder at what it meant that I so enjoyed The Children Act, the latest in what is now a long line of solidly-constructed, and dramatically-heightened realist novels by one of the current first among literary equals, Ian McEwan. The Children Act is, for a McEwan novel, typically simple to pin down. Fiona Maye has built a deservingly successful career as an English High Court judge. Her private life – an agreeably childless marriage to Jack, and the insular world of legal professionals at Gray’s Inn where she and Jack have an apartment – is neatly separated from the family dramas upon which she rationally, sensitively applies the law. But now, in the waning years of late middle-age and in a flare-up of sexual anxiety, Jack presents Fiona with an unexpected (and just a little ridiculous) crisis in their marriage. At the same time, Fiona is asked to make a judgement on a case in which Adam, a brilliant 17- year-old boy, is in urgent need of a lifesaving blood transfusion that he and his parents have refused in accord with their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The coincidence of these crises threatens to overwhelm Fiona’s carefully compartmentalised world. With the certainty of a fighter pilot, McEwan glides through Fiona’s disciplined lines of thought, often as she moves from the private world to the public and back again. She pads down the drama of Jack’s unilateral decision to turn open their ;marriage in language that is as well-measured and human as the judgement she ultimately writes in Adam’s case. There’s great pleasure to be had in reading McEwan’s novels, and The Children Act is no exception. Yet, I can’t help but wonder whether McEwan is playing, in Will Self’s terms, to the cack-handed gallery, myself included. Once more he engrosses because he has given us, this time in Fiona Maye, a character who belongs to a very particular class of people: the English idealised as English-when-disaster-strikes. Fiona is supremely superpowered in her ability to think in a language so clear and controlled that it borders on the Orwellian, not only in the historically pejorative sense, but also in Self’s meaning. In the end, it barely matters how she resolves her crisis; when we read her, what really happens is that we’ve listened in on McEwan guiding her through an imaginary darkness on the heroic ship of language. What I wonder is whether it’s that admiration for control in language that we admire as readers. Do we enjoy McEwan mostly because he is so adept and acute? Because he does McEwan so well? Because he’s a safe bet? Whatever the case, The Children Act can only add to McEwan’s status as one of the first among literary equals, but it might be worth considering that this is a position not really worth holding.