The protagonist of Ian McEwan’s novel, The Children Act, is Fiona Maye, an English High Court Judge assigned to the Family Division, a court described by McEwan as teeming with “special pleading, intimate half-truths” and “exotic accusations,” where parents are “dazed to find themselves in vicious combat with the one they once loved,” while their children huddle in courthouse corridors. The title of the book is borrowed from the United Kingdom statute which requires that the welfare of the child be paramount in legal proceedings involving children.

The novel had its beginnings at a dinner McEwan attended with several judges where he came upon a volume of decisions. McEwan saw parallels with the novelist’s craft: “the judgments were like short stories, or novellas; the background to some dispute or dilemma crisply summarized, the characters drawn with quick strokes, the story distributed across several points of view and, towards its end, some sympathy extended towards those whom, ultimately, the narrative would not favor.”

We are introduced to Maye through several of her cases. In one, she allows a hospital to surgically separate twin boys born with conjoined organs. The surgery saves one boy and sacrifices his brother. The decision haunts Maye who cannot help but feel that she has “dispatched a child from the world, argued him out of existence in thirty-four elegant pages.”

In the pivotal case on which the plot turns, a hospital seeks permission to administer a blood transfusion to Adam Henry, a 17-year old boy with a rare case of leukemia. If treated, he can be expected to recover fully. Without such treatment, he will experience intense physical pain and die an excruciating death. Because Adam is three months shy of his 18th birthday, the treatment decision is up to his parents who object on religious grounds to any blood transfusions.

Perhaps recalling the prior case and the death of the baby boy, Maye decides to visit Adam in the hospital to determine for herself his understanding of his medical condition. At the hospital, Adam is captivated by Maye’s visit. His breathless chatter pours out, non-stop, as he entertains her by reciting a poem he has written and playing his violin for her. Maye questions Adam closely about his understanding of his medical situation and his religious beliefs.

Upon her return to court, Maye rules from the bench. Invoking the principle of the child’s welfare, she holds that it would not promote Adam’s welfare for him to be a martyr to his faith, and that the position of his parents and their faith is hostile to Adam’s welfare. The hospital’s application to treat Adam’s leukemia as deemed necessary, including blood transfusions, is granted.

Several weeks later, Maye receives the first of two letters from Adam. The first, sent to her chambers, showed Adam’s obsession with Maye: “I daydream about us, impossible wonderful fantasies,” such as a ship journey around the world, “where we have cabins next door to each other and we walk up and down on the deck talking all day.”

The second letter arrives at Maye’s home. Because the envelope has no postage or address, Maye realizes that Adam had stalked her from court to her house. This letter is short. It repeats Adam’s desire to speak with her and mentions that he has almost approached her in the street but had been unable to bring himself to do so. Maye does not reply to either letter.

The second letter arrives just as Maye is preparing to travel on circuit to Newcastle to hear cases with other circuit-riding judges. Upon her arrival, she meets with her colleagues over dinner. Toward the end of the meal, Adam turns up at the door. He admits following Maye from London and blurts out that he has left home and wanted to come live with her. He proposes to run errands and do odd jobs in return for Maye instructing him on “everything you think I should know.” He explains the logic of his request by reminding her that, after all, she saved his life.

Realizing, for the first time, what her hospital visit months before had wrought, Maye gently but firmly turns down Adam’s request as unworkable. She summons her clerk to arrange transportation, and set Adam off with instructions to call his parents to let them know where he was.

Although this is the last meeting between Adam and Maye, as the balance of the novel’s races to its conclusion in barely 30 pages after the Newcastle encounter, it does not end the repercussions from the intersection of their lives. Fairness to those who have not read the novel prevents me from disclosing the denouement.

Maye’s experience gives rise to the question of what we expect of judges. Of course, we want judges who can do it all—to be wise, compassionate, free of bias, and virtuosos of legal reasoning. During his confirmation hearing, Chief Justice John Roberts drew on the metaphor of the umpire to describe the judicial role. But do we want judges to merely call balls and strikes, knowing that the issues that come before the courts are not as binary as those decided by a home plate umpire? Perhaps in this regard we can do no more, or no better, than to recall the wisdom of Judge Marvin E. Frankel’s 1974 Benjamin N. Cardozo Lecture:

The trial court is a scene of drama, wit, humor and humanity, along with the sorrows and stretches of boredom. Even the periods of tedium are charged with the awareness of important stakes. There are daily choices that compel the judge to confront himself or herself, not less than those who will be affected, in stark and moving ways.

The Children Act illuminates how one fictional judge, confronted with a case of life or death, navigates the humanity and sorrows referred to by Frankel. In the end, Maye is affected in stark, moving, and unexpected ways.