L-word. A passion play

Love, love, love, love, love! – the long-ago song was barked by Charlie Chaplin in a manic banjo recording. One word. No hearts and flowers. The great tragic clown knew that, while choirs of poets and besotted swains will labour forever to define the L-word, additional lyrics are actually superfluous. Love defies definition.

In The Children Act, Ian McEwan has wrought an elegant, wickedly observant, dramatic conflict between high intellectual endeavour and helpless passion. And what better setting than the high court, where learned judges seek to impose rationality on emotional babblers. He has chosen a particularly explosive battlefield: the wars over child custody.

Wisdom on the bench is all very well, but it takes a strong judicial stomach to bear with the torrents of rage and bitterness that tend to dominate disputes over the destiny of vulnerable children. While divorced parents, social workers and an expensive cast of lawyers dance their way around the law, family life is damaged or destroyed.

The decent senior judge in this case is a woman of subtly attractive mind and kindly intelligence. No longer in her first youth, Milady Fiona Maye is nevertheless accounted both competent and beautiful, an adornment in the loftiest sphere of British jurisprudence. Her childless marriage has been pleasantly steady for long years, which comfort has supported her judgments in and out of court.

But then wisdom and tolerance are sorely tested. Her loving husband makes an outrageous suggestion involving an attractive young woman. He wants a last fling. Milady is displeased. Not mildly either.

The situation is complicated by the necessity of concentrating on a particularly demanding Children Act case. A terminally ill 17-year-old youth, member of a devout Jehovah’s Witness family, refuses a vital blood transfusion. His equally staunch parents are distraught, but proud of their son’s determination to adhere to the tenets of their faith.

Ian McEwan

The boy is bright, good-looking and has flourished at school. His age is a major factor. In three months’ time, he will be 18 and then be deemed adult, legally capable of making his own decision whether to accept or refuse transfusion. In the interim, the judge is empowered to make the immediate life-or-death ruling on his behalf. Expert witnesses say medication is critical within 24 hours if the patient is to survive in reasonable health, or survive at all.

Private life becomes secondary to the medical drama. Justice Maye takes comfort in the civilised familiarity of London’s gracious Inns of Court, her home and place of work. There is also the collegial support from fellow amateur musicians of the legal persuasion.

McEwan renders perfectly the stress in maintaining high-minded calm amid the chaos of personal drama. The tension builds powerfully as the characters (and the reader) await the decisions of the court – and of the individual.

Chaplin’s enigmatic love song comes to mind as events unfold. Does it hurt? Only when you laugh.

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