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The lives of others

· The crisis of secularization in the eyes of Ian McEwan ·

The story of the crisis of secularization, which often takes the form of solitude or by losing the meaning of life, is now being discovered and told in literature. In certain cases these stories are not just simply told, they cry out. Two French authors, Michel Houellebecq and Emmanuel Carrère, garnered much success in their latest book on two failed instances of returning to the Catholic faith. Then there is English author Ian McEwan whose beautiful novel, The Children Act (2014), literally cries out in anguish.

It is a classic case, a issue of bioethics and law, which is beginning to occur with increasing frequency and which forces one to choose between science and religion. It is a story of a boy – just short of becoming a legal adult — who is dying of leukemia. A transfusion could save his life and allow the continuation of his treatment, but his parents refuse for religious reasons. Called to decide Adam's fate is a successful high court judge, who is so passionate about her work that she forgoes motherhood and neglects her marriage. The boy's story unfolds as her marriage takes a downturn and gaping hole begins to take shape in the quiet life of this wealthy woman. While the judge continues to work in family law, she watches as the number of marriages applying for divorce increases.

Standing beside this failure is Adam's problematic but united and loving family, which found the meaning of life and marriage once again thanks to their conversion as Jehovah's Witnesses. Saving the life of this young boy at all costs means for him and his relatives, calling into doubt their convictions about life.

It is not about superstition or the circumvention on behalf of the elderly Jehovah's Witnesses, but about the faithfulness of those who have answered a deep desire. The judge understands this perfectly and thus it is clear to her that scientific reasoning is not enough to find solution that imposes them to undermine this belief. For this reason, she decides to go to the hospital to meet the boy. There she discovers, through music and poetry, a deep connection to the boy, who is a poet and aspiring musician. It is music and the verses they sing together which reveal to the boy his desire to live and thus reveal the reason for her to force him to have the transfusion.

After his health returns, Adam begins to feel restless and seeks answers from the judge who, on saving him feels entirely responsible for his life. Even though she is fascinated by the young boy she runs away from this responsibility, as the situation forces her to face the fact that she denied motherhood. She feels as if she cannot answer such a demanding and profound question.

It is a novel full of moral depth. On the one hand, the author highlights the weight of those who make important decisions regarding the lives of others, i.e. decisions in the field of bioethics. On the other hand, McEwan reveals the dramatic situation of a society which only knows how to destroy faith, one which, however, does not have the answers to the real questions that human existence poses.

Lucetta Scaraffia




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 22, 2020