Ian McEwan’s brief, multi-layered novel about trial judge Fiona Maye, in the High Court of the Family Court Division in England, is based on very real case law; otherwise it is entirely fiction. More than Fiona’s story, this is a story about legal and medical ethics, domestic difficulties, parental responsibility, religious beliefs and how all of these interact to provoke our own eventual decisions. The ultimate effect of these often momentous verdicts, have enormous, sometimes unintended, costs. The book delves into the rights of children, families, religion, and the medical community. Whose welfare is paramount? What is best for the child? It is about the interpretation of the rule of law. It is about the responsibility of the judicial system and it is about relationships, decisions, secrets and lies of omission.
When does British law trump religious law? When does politics play a role in decisions? When does personal gain alter our judgment? What is in the best interest of children in divorce cases? Can a husband be prevented, effectively, from absconding with his children to a Muslim country because he believes their Islamic faith is being challenged by the Western world? Can a parent decide life or death for a child? Fiona Maye is called upon to rule upon those kinds of issues in her courtroom, and yet, she herself is childless. Can she really identify with the problems faced by families?
Fiona cannot escape the emotional effect that some decisions have had upon her personal life. She is 59 years old, and her husband Jack, is 60. He is a Professor of Ancient History. They have been happily, or perhaps, comfortably married for 30 years, and Fiona thought that they were immersed in, fully occupied by and satisfied with their careers. When Jack announces that he has reached a crossroads in his life and wishes to have an open marriage so he can begin an affair with his statistician, Melanie, a very youthful 28 years of age, he asks for her blessing. Jack feels their marriage has gone stale. She has become distant, withholding sex for about two months, and she refuses to tell him what is troubling her. He loves her and wants to have this last fling before he dies, without disturbing their present lifestyle. He wants everything to remain the same between them. He hopes she can accept this. She, however, stunned by his request, cannot and will not consent to travel down that road with him. Fiona is now forced to think about and judge her own behavior.
Fiona has had to make difficult life and death decisions. A recent decision concerned whether or not to separate Siamese twins. One twin, Matthew, was thriving, but the other, Mark, was pretty much a parasite and would not be able to survive on his own. If they remain attached, Mark would essentially murder Matthew, sapping his strength. The parents are devout Catholics and did not want them separated since they would have to choose to kill one to save the other. Mark would not survive the surgery. His body does not have the necessary organs. He shares Matthew’s life support. If they choose to do nothing, both of the boys will die. Her decision is the reason for her sudden coldness and withdrawal from him, but she refuses to tell him, even though it might have changed his mind.
Fiona was on call the night of Jack’s confession. A phone call interrupted their conversation. There was a case that urgently needed her immediate attention. A young man, Adam, was refusing blood transfusions to save his life. He was suffering from Leukemia. He was three months shy of his 18th birthday, and he was a Jehovah’s Witness. His parents refused the treatment for him, as well. Time was of the essence in his health care. Fiona speaks with the boy to find out if he is of sound mind and is making a fully informed decision to withhold lifesaving treatment. Although he is within his rights to make the decision because he has satisfied the provisions of the Gillick Act of 1985 she instead chose to use the 1989 Children’s Act which allowed that regardless of his age, even if over 16, and qualified to make the decision, his welfare is first and foremost. He was studying the violin, writing poetry and proceeding with hope. She had to consider whether or not to grant that hope, even though it went against the family and their religious concerns. When he goes into remission and survives, he seems to be happy and expresses gratitude for her decision, but his religious fervor has left him. He asks if he can come and live with her. He offers to work to earn his keep, but hopes to continue to enjoy their conversations that he enjoyed so much when his case was being considered and he was in treatment. He believes she understands him, but he also seems infatuated with her. She rebuffs him and sends him away after a brief kiss which lands on his lips when he turns his head. Was the kiss even an appropriate gesture? Her actions have unwanted, unintended consequences.
The book is presented in 5 parts. The prose is spare, and the style is a bit distant and appropriately clinical, as it would be in the atmosphere of a court room. The sentences are staccato-like, creating a tone of imminent deadlines with the necessity of quick thinking leading to clear, often controversial end results. The legal arguments are compelling and would pull the reader in even without a back story, like this one, which is really not the relevant issue of the novel, rather the examination of the judicial system with regard to religious issues and human frailties seem paramount.