Ian McEwan again writes about his favorite themes: about the darkness inside us; about inexplicable desires and aversions; about the difficulty and fragility of intimacy; and about all kinds of moral dilemmas stemming from the clash between a rational and a less-than-rational/emotional/religious world view.
The most emphatic (and I’d say: over-emphasized and not very fair – but more on this later) theme this time is the one about moral/religious dilemmas. The main character, Fiona, is a well-respected high court judge, specializing in family law, and incidentally, she’s also the champion of rational thinking, constant planning, and emotion-suppression.
As it turns out from the (not really) randomly mentioned past cases she’d ruled on, Fiona’s met with parents of all kinds of religious beliefs who jeopardized the well-being and healthy development of their children due to their religion: we learn about a Muslim father who got his child out from the sinful and secular England without his ex-wife’s agreement so that he could raise the child in a proper Muslim manner; then we learn about a Jewish family where again it’s the father who takes religion more seriously, and he plans to raise his children according to the orthodox Jewish tradition, while the mother would prefer a more secular upbringing; and then we also learn about a hardcore Christian family where the parents don’t want to allow a life-saving operation on their children, claiming that whatever happens to their children, it’s the intention of God.
Based on the rulings Fiona made in these cases, it’s perhaps easy to guess what her judgment will be in the case this novel is about (so let’s say that McEwan slightly spoils himself). Because the main case here is also something similar: there’s a very ill boy coming from a Jehova’s Witnesses family, who’s a few months short of his eighteenth birthday, and who wants to reject a life-saving procedure due to his religious beliefs – while the hospital wants to fight to save his life.
Even if we might guess what Fiona’s decision will be, there’s enough tension here, as the case ends up on Fiona’s desk at a moment when she’s emotionally unstable and even a little bit sentimental – which is understandable, given the fact that her husband’s just announced that he’d like to leave now, at age 60, and take the last possible chance to experience a passionate, wild, unsettling relationship – because with Fiona, queen of cool, things aren’t exactly working anymore. Due to her emotionally vulnerable state, it’s not the case here that Fiona rules about the fate of A.H., minor, in her impersonal, remote manner. Fiona happens to be vulnerable, approachable, easy to influence, so the main character of the case becomes much more to her than just two initials – A. H. becomes a real human being – Adam Henry, an intelligent, beautiful, innocent, humorous, life-loving, poetic-romantic boy, who at the brink of his eighteenth birthday decides to accept a painful death.
I read a great, sarcastic-poetic question in a review somewhere. Would Adam become such a mythical hero if he hadn’t been such a perfect, out-of-this-world Adam – writing poems, playing the violin, and so on, but had been an average teenage boy instead, with pimples on his face, with teenage angst and cynicism galore, playing World of Warcraft all day? I guess – he most probably wouldn’t. The reason Adam can become such an attractive hero for Fiona is that she meets him at just the right moment in her otherwise pretty unemotional, reserved life, at a moment when she’s in a perfect emotional state to connect with a romantic, warm-hearted, poetic figure like Adam, who’s living his emotions and beliefs so intensely that he’s willing to die for them.
So I feel – and it’s an interesting contradiction to me – that even though the judgment in Adam’s case is exactly the judgment we could expect from the rational, careful and coolly intelligent Fiona, still, this judgment is not based on rational thinking. It’s based on emotions – which is a whole different matter.
And this is the most heart-breaking element in this novel: how the basically rational Fiona decides something based on emotions, but then she’s unwilling or unable to accept that emotional decisions can entail emotional consequences. This is brutal and unsettling – not counting with the possibility that showing emotions towards someone might just possibly awaken emotions in the other, too, and after a moment of sentimentality just retreating to the fortress of rationality, from where there’s a great and safe view of the world, where it’s possible to continue with the usual same smart-assery of the previous 30 years, and where it’s even possible to treat a marriage crisis along the ways of a game, basically saying that: “you performed an act of reconciliation today; so now it’s my turn; and so on; and slowly, slowly we’ll rebuild something and we’ll be just fine in the 10 or 20 years remaining for us on this earth.” (As you might guess, I’m not an extremely rational person/reader, and Fiona will most certainly not feature on my list of favorite literary characters or fictitious soulmates – even though I do understand what she does, because she does exactly what being herself compels her to do.)
And as regards the overt and rather imbalanced moralizing manifest in this novel I already mentioned: it’s partly my personal preference that I’m less interested in moral questions than in McEwan’s perceptions about how extremely awkward and vulnerable we, humans are in our most emotional, deepest relations (McEwan’s insight into what it’s like to be a human always and forever fills me with awe). But partly it’s not only my personal preference: the moral dilemma presented here is only a token dilemma – McEwan only takes one side seriously and it’s quite obvious that he’s extremely pissed off by any kind of (religious or other) fervor and passion. (Of course it’s quite possible that it’s not McEwan himself who’s pissed off by this but Fiona – I’m not intending to mix them up – McEwan is the writer, though, so if he really wants to deal with moral dilemmas, he might just take the trouble and present both sides with equally serious and detailed treatment.)
And it’s weird – and again: heart-breaking – for me here: how rational thinking wins. It sweeps over everything, it levels all differences, and – after a huge emotional upheaval and a couple of dangerously-real acts – it goes on to revert everything back to normal. And the romantic, the emotional, the taken, the ones who are not willing to repress their souls at all times – they can only come to a bad end.