The Cement Garden is McEwan’s first novel, and while there is not much to link it to his later and more well known novels such as Atonement or On Chesil Beach, his familiar unsettling touch and straight forward prose is clearly evident and should be welcome signs to McEwan’s fans.
Told from the perspective of 15 year old Jack, the story opens shortly before the death of his father. He is the second of four children ranging from six to 17 years old, there is a distance between the children and their father which is more than made up by the uncomfortable closeness of the children, particularly Jack and his two sisters, 17 year old Julie and 13 year old Sue. And so, we come to a disclaimer that is becoming quite a regular feature in my reviews; this short novel is not for the faint-hearted or easily icked-out. The uncomfortable tone of this story kicks off right from the start and it begins with the game of doctor Jack and his two sisters are playing in the opening passages. When the children’s mother also passes away not soon after their father, the children decide to bury their mother in cement in their basement to prevent them being put into care and possibly separated.
What happens next is a predictable spiral into chaos and disorder. The children are ill-equipped to look after themselves or each other and each reacts to this horrible turn of events differently. Tom, the youngest at 6, regresses into baby-like behaviour. Sue withdraws into her books and diary. Julie at 17 attempts to take on the running of the household, not always successfully. And then there is Jack. Even before the passing of their parents, Jack was already unsavoury (I really can not think of a better word). It is through Jack’s eyes and the presence that Jack imposes on his surroundings that McEwan brings his skill of unnerving. Jack goes out of his way to stay unwashed, revelling in the impact his acne-ridden image has on his mother and siblings. He is unhealthily interested in his sisters but stays on the fringes, his observations more from his peeping and spying than from the intention of looking out for his family.
What I have been skirting around is that there are incestuous overtones going on here. All right, there is actual incest that occurs in The Cement Garden. There, I’ve said it. Kind of a spoiler but not a huge one as it occurs very early on and seems to be one of the key things associated with the story. Which is a shame as it seems to be a major thing when really it is a factor in this disturbing tale. While it is right up there in uncomfortable stakes, it is more the idea of the blurred lines of what should and should not be for these children who are put into a very adult (and a macabre one at that) situation. While it is predictable that the wheels will come off, it is what happens along the way that is is interesting; interesting, awful, tense but like the proverbial train wreck, hard to turn away from.
Yet, for all this there is a forced feeling to it all. It is an interesting situation that these children are in but I found myself thinking more about the motivations of McEwan rather than that of our characters. I thought more about what he was hoping to achieve with it all, then let myself be carried away by the story itself. There is an emotional aloofness, an almost calculated feel to it. I admire it for the technical brilliance that is always evident in McEwan’s work and this his first, is no exception. A small part perhaps is down to me wanting to distance myself from something so abhorrent to me, that these characters are so odd and the situation so perturbing that I found myself reading from afar rather getting right into the story. But also, the style of writing is distancing and cold itself, of which I suppose I should be thankful but ultimately did not really allow me to enjoy it fully.
This is a quick read, interesting in parts and a quite easy one to cross of the list if you don’t mind being creeped out a little. Sorry, creeped out a lot. McEwan seems to be quite popular among the film community as this is one of six of his novels that have been adapted to film, Enduring Love and Atonement included and both on the list. So, not highly recommended by me but being a quick read works in it’s favour.