[Summing up the career of protagonist Fiona Maye, and explaining why she is childless]
A story best told at speed. After finals, more exams, then the call to the Bar, pupillage, a lucky invitation to prestigious chambers, some early success defending hopeless cases – how sensible it had seemed, to delay a child until her early thirties. And when those years came, they brought complex worthwhile cases, more success . Jack was also hesitant, arguing for holding back another year or two. Mid thirties then, when he was teaching in Pittsburgh and she worked a fourteen-hour day, drifting deeper into family law as the idea of her own family receded, despite the visits of nephews and nieces. In the following years, the first rumours that she might be elected precociously to the bench and required to be on circuit. But the call didn’t come, not yet. And in her forties, there sprang up anxieties about elderly gravids and autism. Soon after, more young visitors to Gray’s Inn Square, noisy demanding great-nephews, great-nieces, reminded her how hard it would be to squeeze an infant into her kind of life. Then rueful thoughts of adoption, some tentative enquiries – and throughout the accelerating years that followed , occasional agonies of doubt, firm late-night decisions concerning surrogate mothers undone in the early-morning rush to work. And when at last, at nine thirty one morning at the Royal Courts of Justice , she was sworn in by the Lord Chief Justice and took her oath of allegiance and her Judicial Oath before two hundred of her bewigged colleagues , and she stood proudly before them in her robes, the subject of a witty speech, she knew the game was up, she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ.
observations: Ian McEwan's books are full of over-privileged people studying their own reactions to this and that.
In this book a description of London in the rain is mixed with looking at climate change. We are asked to consider several musical performances – obviously we can’t hear, so we have to take his word for it that one of them really is that cliché of someone performing spectacularly well because they are going through an emotional trauma. I found the music descriptions embarrassingly over-earnest, even though I share his taste for a quite obscure Keith Jarrett album (possibly our favourite track from it is different: I couldn’t quite tell).
The book has echoes of the Frances Fyfield crime story I featured recently, Blood from Stone, which also featured a high-flying woman in the legal world thinking about her cases. (Though Fyfield will never be treated with the literary acclaim McEwan gets). This book – which deals with the rights of children, and issues of consent over medical treatment – came out just as a controversial case was hitting the headlines in the UK: a family had removed their child from a hospital in Southampton, and then from the country, because they were unconvinced by the treatment being offered. McEwan wrote a very interesting article for the Guardian newspaper on this, very reasonably linking his book with the case – but less reasonably, completely spoilering the book, in a way that you would only realize when you start reading it. So avoid the article if you intend to read the book…
The issues are important, and McEwan is plainly intelligent, and not in any doubt about his intelligence, but I’m not sure a novel is the way to look at those issues. The book bears a strange resemblance to the James Joyce short story The Dead: a traditional Irish song is important, and a young man in poor health travels in the rain and gets wet in his devotion to someone, surely to his own detriment.
The picture shows Cherie Booth Blair, wife of the former UK Prime Minister and a barrister, QC and part-time judge. Depressingly, when I was searching for pictures using the tags woman + judge, a lot of pictures of beauty contests popped up.
Other McEwan books, A child in Time and Sweet Tooth, have appeared on the blog.