England has an Establishment, utterly sure of itself, and most of its members live for part of the year in London where they circulate between interconnected club-like circles. Sometimes they seek out worlds outside their own, as when they go looking for sex or drugs. Sometimes, other worlds erupt into their closed lives in unexpected ways.
This is the second or third novel in which Ian McEwan makes his story out of encounters between Establishment and Other. This time it involves a judge in the Family Division of the High Court and a teenage Jehovah’s Witness; in Saturday it took a distinguished neurosurgeon and a street criminal.
Both are very readable books, with fine pacing and deft evocations of place and character. Scanning through McEwan’s backlist, I find I have read most of his novels and found only one to be a dud: Amsterdam, which got the Booker Prize, largely - I suspect - because the judges had screwed up a couple of years before when they did not give the prize to Enduring Love, a novel in a completely different class with a spectacular opening sequence.
The Children Act is a morally serious novel which manages to explore or touch upon a remarkably wide range of important issues: marital fidelity, enduring love, childlessness, loneliness, religious fundamentalism, what “the welfare of the child” might mean, the limitations of judicial procedures, the importance of classical music … All this in just over 200 pages (but the lines widely spaced).
I was unhappy at only one (key) point (page 197) where the judge, Fiona, learns of the death of the young Jehovah’s Witness just before she goes on stage to play piano in an end-of-legal-term get-together and concert. Her performance is then turned into a requiem for the lost young man. I found this too contrived to be really effective.
But it’s still an excellent novel, well worth what will be a short read.