In James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead,” Gabriel and Gretta Conroy are in a marriage grown cold. One night after a Christmas party Gabriel seeks to rekindle some of their passion. But Gretta is distracted by a song she had heard at the party, The Lass of Aughrim. When Gabriel presses her for her reasons for being so distracted by this song, Gretta admits that it was a song that used to be sung by a young man, Michael Furey, whom she was “great with” as a girl. Gabriel angrily asks Gretta if she is still in love with this Michael Furey. “He is dead,” Gretta explains. “He died when he was only seventeen. Isn’t it a terrible thing to die so young as that?” Gabriel, humiliated “by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks,” asks how Michael Furey died.
Gretta answers: “I think he died for me.”
The specter of Joyce’s Michael Furey came to me as I read Ian McEwan’s captivating, elegantly written, and disturbing new novel, The Children Act. As in “The Dead,” the center of The Children Act is a marriage grown cold and a wife’s attachment to a gifted and sensitive young man whose passion for her haunts her rather conventional existence. Fiona Maye, a London high court judge in the family division, doesn’t pursue an affair with this young man, Adam. And Adam’s passion for her is ambiguously erotic. Their connection, though not without its erotic tinge, is more complex – because of a particular understanding of religious faith in the secular world.
The motor of The Children Act is a judgment Fiona must make whether to allow a hospital to administer a blood transfusion that will save Adam’s life. Adam and his family are staunch Jehovah’s Witnesses, and are refusing on religious grounds. The problem is that Adam is just under eighteen, and thus still a legal child. Both his parents and the hospital claim a right to make his legal decision for him. Fiona must decide who has the best claim to Adam’s welfare.
In an unorthodox move, Fiona visits Adam in the hospital to get a sense of how much he really understands and desires the fate his faith entails. But this brief visit creates an emotional bond between them. Just as in “The Dead,” the bond is woven together by music, and indeed another song with an Irish connection: Benjamin Britten’s setting of the Yeats poem, “Down By the Salley Gardens.” In the hospital precocious Adam has taken up the violin, and after listening to him scratch out the song, Fiona – an accomplished musician – suggests he play the piece again while she sings along:
The situation, and the room itself, sealed off from the world, in perpetual dusk, may have encouraged a mood of abandon, but above all, it was Adam’s performance, his look of strained dedication, the scratchy inexpert sounds he made, so expressive of guileless longing, that moved her profoundly and prompted her impulsive suggestion.
Fiona’s impulsiveness is clearly prompted by the sorrow and anger she is feeling about her marriage. As the novel opens Fiona’s husband Jack, an academic, has just dropped a bomb. Although he tells Fiona that he loves her, always will, and wants to stay married, Jack also wants to pursue, “one big passionate affair.” Fiona cannot accept an open marriage. Jack leaves, presumably for his lover. The Children Act plays out against the backdrop of Fiona, the expert at handling the problems in other people’s families, being forced to deal with a crisis in her own marriage.
At one level, The Children Act is about sex – sex as emblem of freedom and innocence, sex as unruly and destructive passion, sex as the troubling vehicle by which children, and the conflicts attending them that Fiona oversees in court, come into the world. Fiona’s professional commitments have led her to disassociate sex from children, which leads to regrets about her childlessness – brought to the surface by the dying Adam.
Fiona rules in favor of the transfusion and Adam recovers from his illness. But his presence in Fiona’s life doesn’t end there. For reasons Fiona doesn’t at first comprehend, Adam has a deep need to maintain a relationship with her. He even goes so far as to follow her on a business trip to Newcastle, where, in another impulsive moment, Fiona turns a motherly kiss goodbye into something more. Ashamed by what she has done, Fiona shuts down all communication with Adam, which precipitates a tragedy from which Fiona will never quite recover.
This final tragedy is brought on, in part, by Adam’s rejection of his Jehovah’s Witness faith. In encountering Fiona he seeks a combination mother-figure, lover, and, most importantly, guide to navigating the secular world without faith. This last Fiona only fully realizes once the final tragedy has occurred:
Adam came looking for her and she offered nothing in religion’s place, no protection….Welfare, well being, was social. No child is an island. She thought her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.
Similarly to Gretta Conroy, Fiona can say that a young man died for her. What Fiona represents for Adam is, not simply love, but meaning. Yet what exactly does Fiona offer in religion’s place? Intelligence, artistic gifts and sensibilities, deeply imperfect relationships, and, despite everything, a certain poise before the “open and beautiful and terrifying” world drained of divine significance.
The Children Act suggests that all this is enough, or at least all one can reasonably expect, from this life. But in the shadows of such meaning, the specter of sweet, searching, guideless Adam becomes a very haunting one, indeed.