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Arts & Life

A Judge Makes Critical Decisions In 'Children Act'


Fiona Maye holds the power of life and death in her hands. She's a family court judge in London who knows most of her rulings in divorce and custody cases will dole out happiness or sorrow. She draws the case of a 17-year-old boy whom doctors say needs a blood transfusion to survive. But his parents are Jehovah's Witnesses who love their son but do not want to defy the articles of their faith that prohibit transfusion.

"The Children Act" is Ian McEwan's new novel. It opens a window into the life and soul of a sharply intelligent woman who must consider and rule on cases with intimate, personal and permanent consequences, even as her husband has left their marriage and she regrets the children they never had. Ian McEwan, who has won most major literary words in the English language for novels that range from "Amsterdam" to "Atonement" to "Black Dogs" and "On Chesil Beach," joins us from the BBC Studios in Oxford, England.

Thanks so much for being with us.

IAN MCEWAN: My pleasure.

SIMON: How can any human being be expected make decisions like that?

MCEWAN: It's extraordinary. When I was researching this novel, I sat in on a few cases. And maybe the most extraordinary thing of it all was the extent to which these judges would go through in a morning - the kind of momentous decisions which would have us racking our brains and being nervous wrecks for months.

SIMON: What did the judges think of you hanging around?

MCEWAN: Well, I'm lucky in that I have a friend of some years now who himself was a very eminent judge. And the crucial Jehovah's Witness case is based - with many details and characters changed - on a case he actually presided over some years back.

SIMON: Judge Mayes, she draws this case of the young man who's a Jehovah's Witness, parents don't want him to have a transfusion, 17 years old.

Why does she decide to go to his bedside? That seems unlike her judicial style.

MCEWAN: I have to say that what drew me to this case in the first place was that the judge, my friend, he himself left the court suspended while he crossed London to sit at the boy's bedside. I think the judge in my novel, just as the judge in the real case, felt that she had to be there just to get a sense of how much he understood his own predicament and the extent to which the views he had were his own.

SIMON: What I wondered about - and of course this is maybe a third of the way through the novel - if by going to his bedside, she began to see him as a child who needs help rather than the ruling that she has to make that's in accord with the law.

MCEWAN: Well, I think you're right and also underlying that, this is a childless woman, as you said in your introduction. And she begins to see in him - though she hardly dares to articulate this to herself - the child that she herself never had. The novel's title, "The Children Act," refers us back to the very first sentence of that piece of legislation which enjoins the court to always consider the child's interest as a paramount consideration whenever considering that child's future. And she decides as most courts will - as all courts will - that it is not in this child's interest to be dead.

SIMON: You know, I covered a case with some similarity to this years ago in Tennessee. I met the parents and I expected - they were Jehovah's Witnesses - and I expected to meet - this is not fair to Jehovah's Witnesses, who I got to know a bit - but, I expected to meet religious automatons. And I found on the contrary, the parents of this young man - the case I covered, he had cancer - were loving and kind and rational. And they said, if we let our son have his operation and our son dies, which he will probably anyway, he will not be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven and we would find that to be more cruel than death. They loved their child, but they just had a different concept of what would be in his best interest - and one that I couldn't laugh off.

MCEWAN: No, I don't think one can laugh this off. And for that reason, I wanted to make this boy as sympathetic as possible and crucially his father, who gives evidence in court. It is extraordinary. And it brings us right up against belief, faith, ideological certainty that sometimes people will pursue what seems to us outsiders the greatest possible pain in holding to their own beliefs. For in this case, he has a kind of common childhood leukemia that can be cured. And these cases do come up, Scott, a fair amount. The court respects religion, but the court is fundamentally secular and rationalist in its assumptions. And it's a rift. And it has to be either or, there's no middle way.

SIMON: Is there a territory that judges and novelists share?

MCEWAN: Well, I think that's a very good question because what drew me to this subject was the thought that this family division, especially, has pitched its camp right on the terrain of fiction. You're looking at love and the end of love, the contested fates of children, deathbed wishes, medical ethics. The only difference is, that judges, unlike their lucky novelists, judges have to make a verdict - have to give a verdict - where as novelists can simply investigate the terrain, bring it before us.

SIMON: This novel kept bringing up a question for me, in one case after another - and certainly in the case of the young 17-year-old. And that is, do children belong to their parents or do they belong to the world?

MCEWAN: Well, the legislation we have, the 1989 Children Act suggests that finally, children belong to the world. They are not the things of their parents. And when the crunch comes and a crucial decision has to be made, it's the children's interest and not the parents or the parents' gods that the courts must take into account.

SIMON: Ian McEwan. His new novel, "The Children Act."

Thanks so much for being with us.

MCEWAN: My great pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.