(2014: Jonathan Cape) by Ian McEwan
[Read 11-13 June 2015]
Background: Kristina received the book as a gift last Christmas from her parents. I am an avid reader of the author, after falling in love with one of his previous books On Chesil Beach (2007). Kristina had read it earlier in the year and had enjoyed it, so I felt in the mood for more his unique literary prose.
Plot: The book follows Fiona Maye, an exemplary and experienced Family High Court judge in her late fifties, as she presides over cases in London and Newcastle. She lives in a London flat with her estranged husband Jack of over thirty years, a university professor of ancient history, who explains he wants to have sex outside their marriage. Fiona’s anxieties are heightened after she rules on a pressing case that involves a seventeen-year-old boy Adam and his parents, all Jehovah’s Witnesses, who refuse a hospital’s blood transfusion to save him from dying of leukaemia. Fiona’s fair and well-informed verdict affects their lives through their love of poetry, instrumental music as well as the application of their short- and long-held beliefs. The plot covers Fiona’s life for approximately six months as her moods and feelings towards her past, Adam and her husband alter.
Strengths: The third-person narrative gives the prose an insightful tone yet also a modern impression of place and time. Fiona is a well-drawn character as all her fears, opinions and behaviour fit together with her authentic middle-class life. There are no dull sections as the flowing language heightens the legal proceedings and the balance of arguments in the various cases. The subtle use of the weather to convey certain scenes is effective and the slow, unresolved progress of Fiona and Jack is respectful and not anticlimactic. The sparse details of the few supporting characters and irrational behaviour, not mind, of Adam suits the story too and reaffirms Fiona’s professionalism above all else.
I also enjoyed the array of wisdom throughout the book: “… [T]hat nothing denigrated a person, boy or girl, more than the denial of a decent education and the dignity of proper work…” [page 12], “Courts should be slow to intervene in the interests of the child against the religious principles of the parents… ‘The infinite variety of the human condition precludes arbitrary definition.'” [page 16-17], “‘I think all great poets must suffer.'” [page 111], and “… life is more precious than… dignity.” [page 123] There are other interesting ideas raised in the book, like conjoined twins, who should establish care of a minor when the parents are not suitable, and the negative impact of jailing people who make one mistake but are active in their communities.
Weaknesses: There are no technical faults in the prose or length of the book. The only thoughts I had while I read was that the Adam’s character could have been developed a little more, and that the poetic and moral aspects of his case could have been debated further. Otherwise slight references to more legal cases could have raised even greater questions of the UK’s legal structure and its practice. But in McEwan’s established, eloquent style the numerous dilemmas Fiona faces remain enough to explore deep thoughts and ambitions.
Conclusion: The book is another fine example of accessible literary fiction, and at just over two-hundred pages separated into five chapters it is another page-turner that takes little time to absorb. It deals with the issues of law in a sensitive, realistic and engaging way. The focus on three main characters helps drive the narrative to a sad but not unsurprising or unnatural ending. The conclusion of Fiona’s journey is well-structured and appears to represent the wider struggles of English middle-class, middle-aged life and the pursuit of ideals that are difficult to realise. The book is a subtle, not so unique take on how individual hard-working success does not necessarily equate to familial reward or stability. It also raises issues of whether legal justice is preferable to other moral and religious reasoning. Ultimately I recommend the book for its intelligent approach to tricky matters, and its thought-provoking language.
Word bank: supine, bather, banal, plaintive, querulous, perdition, flinty, denigrated, anathemas, benign, susurrus, pedantry, stet, dissolute, coquettishly, evinced, roseate, visceral, recidivists, fastidious, morass, venerable, partita, fugue, gravids, etiolated, artisanal, remonstration, ostracism, ignominious, deference, foppish, haughtily, lithe, precocity, otiose, desultory, misanthropy, cantilevered, parquet, rakish, saccades, importuning, bumptiousness, impregnable, eschatology, rancorous, kitsch, rancour, peremptory, philtrum, ferrous, doggeral, skein, coital