With the finely tuned skill of a surgeon, McEwan cuts to the core of sixty-year-old Fiona Maye, a high court judge for London’s Crown Court Family Division. An intellectual powerhouse, Fiona has spent her life furthering her career while reveling in the cloistered life of Gray’s Inn, the familiar sanctuary of cultured barristers and judges that she shares with her husband, Jack. Throughout her career, Fiona has brought “reasonableness to hopeless situations,” and her writing has won high praise among her fellow judges for her crisp prose and her warm, ironic tones.
As the yellow streetlights illuminate circles of pavement and the Sunday evening traffic reaches her from High Holborn Road, Fiona must learn to navigate through a profound, rocky betrayal and the restitution of a broken heart. Fiona is shocked when Jack tells her that he wants to have an affair. As the true extent of his insult ricochets out through Fiona’s life, he prepares to “pay for his pleasures with her misery.” Until now, Jack has been kind and loyal—which makes his sudden announcement all the more perplexing. Unable to talk to Jack in an exchange that she knows will lead to an excruciating frankness, Fiona resorts to the only world she knows: her daily case load.
From this low-key starting point, McEwan creates a frisson of danger, evincing an ability to handle personal situations with more high tension than the novel’s scope would initially lead us to believe. Fiona is not the type of woman to stand for self-pity, and she’s certainly not going to dedicate herself to revive a sensual life she has, at the moment, “no taste for,” especially when she suspects that Jack’s affair has already begun. The richness and a complexity of Fiona’s character, McEwan portraying her\as self-assured and self-contained. She’s easily one of the most fully dimensional characters of McEwan’s writing career. Tumbling us into her interior thoughts, McEwan makes Fiona accessible, even palatable, and gives us a sense of how smart, how impossible, and how human this woman really is. Fiona’s professional life has been spent above the affray advising,then judging, but now she’s “down there with the rest, swimming with the desolate tide.”
A late-night phone call and a local hospital’s emergency intervention sets this tale on course, adding to the ripple effect of consequences of past acts. Adam Henry, a boy almost eighteen and the legal age of autonomy, wishes to end his life by refusing a blood transfusion. He’s a teenager who is confronting death either for his own or his parents’ religious beliefs. Fiona’s business is not to save Adam but to decide what is reasonable and lawful and to fashion a judgment formed by her own observations. As the court case proceeds, both Fiona and the reader get a firm understanding of the parents’ beliefs, either an affirmation of their son’s own belief or a death sentence, or a sentence he dare not challenge.
The novel sets tone for an exploration of McEwan’s subtle revelations of repressed emotion. Given the unique circumstances of this case, Fiona decides she would like to hear from Adam himself. In one of the most melancholy and affecting passages, Fiona travels to the hospital in Wandsworth to sit at Adam’s bedside. Here McEwan’s prose is lovely, with startlingly keen observations. Fiona travels through the tangle of London, south of the river with its dusty Edwardian houses and “brutalist” apartment towers, far from the cultured security of Gray’s Inn.
Fiona spies Adam in his hospital bed, dark, solemn, and struggling to breathe. Like an embattled romantic hero from the great literary tragedies, Adam wants to suffer, loving all the pain and sacrifice. For Adam, blood stands for the gift of life that every living soul should be grateful for; these are not cherished beliefs but statements of fact. The boy is obviously clever and articulate but still very young, yet his predicament becomes a reflection of Fiona own beliefs as she is forced to face the haunting memories of her own ambition, a hazy notion of renewal, and an undiscovered potential in another life.
Gliding us through each sentence of his story, McEwan lays bare two vulnerable souls while keeping the lid safely fastened on Fiona’s legal and ethical decision-making for both Adam‘s welfare and her marriage. Stripping away the detritus of Fiona and Adam’s hearts, McEwan reveals an underlying meaning, filling his tale with beauty, bittersweet longing, and a tragic, aching sense of loss.