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(Sledge)hammering it home

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With a huge following for his strong writing and taxing story lines, almost anything Ian McEwan writes is an almost guaranteed best-seller. But The Children Act is not one of his finest

Fiona Maye, a leading High Court judge, renowned for her fierce intelligence and sensitivity, is called on to try an urgent case. For religious reasons, a 17-year-old boy is refusing the medical treatment that could save his life.

Time is running out. She visits the boy in hospital – an encounter that stirs long-buried feelings in her and powerful new emotions in the boy. But it is Fiona who must ultimately decide whether he lives or dies and her judgement will have momentous consequences for them both.

Ian McEwan is one of those writers who has almost a cult following, so when he brings out a book it is pretty much a guaranteed best-seller before the printer's ink is barely dry. While The Children Act is an interesting analysis of certain moral and ethical issues, it still falls short of his past achievements. A while back I reviewed Sweet Tooth and said that he could have written it in his sleep. With The Children Act he wakes us up with a drum which he bangs, rather unnecessarily, loud and clear.

The boy in question is an intelligent, thoughtful young man who believes he is refusing medical treatment for the right religious reasons. But it looks very much as if he is being manipulated by church elders, as well as his own parents. Fiona Maye sees him as an impressionable youth whose mind is swayed by adults who don’t necessarily know better.

To hammer the message home, McEwan cites a few other cases our worthy barrister worked on – conjoined twins, whose Catholic parents must decide whether or not to let one die in order for the other to survive in the womb, and a Jewish girl whose father believes she doesn’t need a proper education, but whose mother is fighting for it. I’m sure she tackled a Muslim dilemma too but, frankly, by this time I was so sick of being preached to that I barely cared.

To cap it all, our esteemed barrister Fiona Maye, is childless, through her determination to rise to the top of the career ladder. She missed the boat family-wise, so how can she empathise with confused children or stubborn parents?

What could have been an interesting debate about the rights and wrongs of strongly-held religious beliefs that can make the difference between life and death, actually became rather silly as the reprieved boy (I'm giving nothing away here) becomes obsessed with his saviour. His unlikely stalking and journey to confront her is all a bit too far-fetched for me. Has he become her own religious crusade?

Far more intriguing is the relationship between the barrister and her rather pompous husband, who decides to play away because he doesn't get enough attention at home. This rather good opening scene ends up being sidelined by McEwan’s desire to browbeat the reader about free will and choices.

I am a huge fan of Ian McEwan – Atonement, On Chesil Beach and The Comfort of Strangers are all modern classics, therefore I will keep the faith with him. But he is sorely trying my patience.

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