Strange Gods and the Old Devils
Tracts for our times: Ian McEwan (left) and Martin Amis (Amis: Tom Clarke, McEwan: Annalena McAfee)
Martin Amis and Ian McEwan are two of the greatest living masters of English prose. They are, besides, distinguished among their contemporaries by their formidable intelligence. Both have novels out this autumn, respectively entitled The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Cape, £18.99) and The Children Act (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), which depend for their effects on a combination of verisimilitude and ventriloquism. Each has taken a subject and characters based on real and identifiable events and individuals. However, both novels are also tracts for our time. Neither author is content merely to describe or to narrate; their aim is to make us see moral dilemmas through their eagle eyes. Both works are intended to persuade the reader of views about history and religion, guilt and innocence, good and evil — controversial views in our time and place. They hope that we, the readers, will find their narratives so credible and their characters so compelling that we will accept their newly-minted fictions as coin of the realm of letters. We are to forget that what they are describing actually happened within living memory. They require a suspension not only of disbelief, but of knowledge.
In an essay for the Guardian, McEwan explained that The Children Act arose from conversations, initially over dinner, with judges in the family division, which "is rooted in the same ground as fiction, where all of life's vital interests lie. With the luxury of withholding judgment, a novel could interpose itself here, reinvent the characters and circumstances, and begin to investigate an encounter between love and belief, between the secular spirit of the law and sincerely held faith." The novel "interposes itself" into this rarefied world of jurisprudence by recounting a thinly-disguised case presided over by McEwan's judicial friend Sir Alan Ward, in which a hospital wished to administer a blood transfusion to a teenager suffering from leukaemia against the wishes of his parents, both Jehovah's Witnesses. It is clear enough from the contrast the author draws between "love and belief", between "the secular spirit of the law" and "sincerely held faith", that the novel (or at any rate the novelist) does not in fact withhold judgment. On the contrary: as a sequence of cases are recalled in the course of the novel, the balance of Justitia tips remorselessly against Catholics, Muslims, Jews and, of course, Jehovah's Witnesses.
In his explanatory essay, plus a page of acknowledgements in the book, McEwan chose not to remind the reader of another case that must surely have influenced his judgment: his own. His first marriage, to a spiritual healer, ended in a courtroom drama over custody of their sons. The case briefly made headlines in 1999 after she went on the run with one of the boys in France and ended when McEwan won sole custody. I mention this case here not to criticise McEwan, for whom the memory must be traumatic, but because any novel is bound to be the product of multiple experiences and influences, acknowledged or otherwise. The novel's title, The Children Act, pays tribute to the principle enshrined in that statute of 1989, that the "welfare of the child" must always be paramount in court — a principle for which McEwan is profoundly grateful.