Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, January 2, 2015

Ian McEwan, _The Children Act_

I USED TO think of McEwan as the least interesting of the trio he formed with Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, but now I don't know...he's looking strong in the latter laps. This new one is not a vaultingly ambitious novel, but it's brisk and alive, which is more than you can say for Amis's recent production, I think.

The novel opens immediately after our protagonist, High Court Judge Fiona Maye, sixty-ish, has received the shocking humiliation of her husband's announcement that he wants to have an affair--"I want one last go, even if you don't." They have not had sex for a while, apparently, and the husband, Jack, is...what? Seeking anticipatory forgiveness? Permission?  Just keeping her in the loop? Anyway,  he is writing her off as a sexual being, and it's a blow.

The next 200 pages are about Fiona Getting Her Groove Back. She adroitly handles a very tricky and highly publicized case involving a brilliant almost-adult young man whose Jehovah's Witness family forbids the blood transfusion that could save his life. The young man falls a bit in love with her. Jack comes  crawling back. his hopes for one last ride on the roller coaster of ecstasy having crashed and burned. As the novel heads for its close, she demonstrates her classical piano chops for an audience of her peers and leaves them slack-jawed at her near-professional virtuosity. She and Jack head home, and the old glint is back in Jack's eye.

Fiona has Still Got It at sixty, in short, and her convincing display of said Still Having It would be a perfectrly satisfactory wrap-up for a novel as stylistically sharp and as keen in its perceptions as this one--but then McEwan has the sheer audacity to turn the novel's end into a revision of the ending of Joyce's "The Dead," but as it were from Gretta Conroy's perspective. The devotion of the young man who died before his devotion could ebb, the song in the rain--"Down by the Salley Gardens" standing in for "The Lass of Aughrim," a nice touch--the horny hoping-to-score husband abruptly brought face-to-face with his wife's ability to inspire a passion he himself may scarcely be capable of...it's all there.

The Children Act turns out to be ambitious after all--appropriating the justly famous ending of one of the greatest short stories in the English language takes some chutzpah, and damned if McEwan doesn't make it work. Yes, he may be pulling away a bit in these latter laps.

No comments: