I no longer call Ian McEwan my second favourite novelist as I did from about 2006 to 2009, not after Solar, not after falling out of love with Saturday. But even if On Chesil Beach is his last masterpiece, I will probably keep reading every novel he publishes. The Children Act (2014) is a case in point. I read him because even when he seems smug, or plays it safe (and he does both in this novel), he has these passages of acute insight into human experience – into stray thoughts, musings, sensations, reflections on the way life is.
If, as Jack insisted, geology shaped the variety of British character and destinies, then the locals were granite, she was crumbly limestone brash. But in her girlish infatuation with the city, her cousins, the band and her first boyfriend, she believed she could change, become truer, more real, become a Geordie. Years later, the memory of that ambition could still make her smile. But it continued to haunt her whenever she returned, a hazy notion of renewal, of undiscovered potential in another life, even as her sixtieth birthday approached. (153)
In this novel, a crisis in the marriage of a judge about to turn sixty comes at the same moment as a difficult decision over a seventeen year-old Jehovah’s Witness who is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion. As always, McEwan asks big questions, particularly on the nature of freedom and marriage, and explores them well. It feels familiar, one of the more representative and least innovative of his late novels, sort of like a middle-aged Chesil Beach crossed with Saturday. Perhaps it’s the sleek, smooth plotting – too flawless, too contrived, albeit not as outrageously as his worst novel, Amsterdam. Despite being a New Atheist (or practically so) he is surprisingly fair to Jehovah’s Witnesses. He seems to have done his homework, and to have attempted to think through their eyes, rather than knocking down a straw-man. He also understands what it is to be seventeen as acutely as any writer I know. But he is nearing seventy, and at one point the judge’s husband says, “We don’t have much time,” not talking about the concert about to start, but their lives, and I felt a sadness, knowing that this was McEwan’s own mortal rumination showing through. The Children Act was a perfect aeroplane read for me, which is high praise.