on September 2, 2004
Ian McEwan freezes our attention on the grotesque, then renders grotesquerie plausible, even "normal." Indeed, what is "natural" assumes an expanded range of possibility in McEwan's writing, adding fresh dimension to psychological horror. The Cement Garden, his first novel (and better described as a novella), brings these observations graphically to life, in precise, crystalline prose.
The Cement Garden has been likened to Golding's Lord of the Flies for its careful evocation of a society of young people, suddenly relieved of adult oversight, that evolves rapidly, opportunistically, organically in response to specific challenges posed by an unusual environment. In McEwan's working of these materials, related in the flat, dispassionate voice of Jack, the 14-year-old narrator, the challenging environment is the solitary house in which Jack, his brother, and two sisters live, set in the midst of a desolate urban landscape cleared for a freeway that never gets built.
The book takes its name from the paved-over garden Jack's fussy, acerbic father, a heart patient, envisions as tidier as easier to maintain. The exertions of the project kill the father, to no one's apparent regret, in the first chapter, leaving a sizable inventory of cement behind. With the demise of their long ailing mother shortly thereafter, the orphaned children are forced to recreate the family unit. Fearful of the split-up of the family, foster care for little Tom, and other worrisome ministrations of an impersonal state, the children decide to tell no one of their mother's death and to entomb her in concrete in the basement.
Jack recounts these and other details, and the changes each child undergoes, in his matter-of-fact voice. McEwan charges his tale with an extraordinary measure of sexual tension, primarily between Jack - much more than the stereotypically acne-covered, pubescent, serially self-abusing "sullen teen" - and his beautiful, athletic older sister Julia, who assumes the maternal role of "Wendy" to the family's "lost children." The movement of the story is aided and abetted by Derek, Julia's "bloke," a professional snooker player, aking all the questions the nosey private eye in a Hitchcock picture usually asks. The dreaded resolution of the relentlessly rising tension, carefully withheld until the closing pages, relieves narrative pressure but raises disturbing perspectives on love, the family, the "ties that bind."
The Cement Garden renews, at least in my mind, the great question of what it is that prompts a lavishly gifted writer to explore so sensitively the wholly bizarre. Great writing generally works simultaneously at several levels and admits layers of meaning. McEwan writes about familiar characters who before our eyes become something very, very different. He begs us to inquire beneath the surface familiarity into worlds unseen by, or denied to, passing spectators. He compels us to ask ourselves "what is `normal'?" "What is `natural'?" His answers may unsettle, but they are are the product of a novelistic logic that, in its internal workings, is eminently reasonable.
The Cement Garden is assuredly not for every taste. More than once, I looked up from the page with an "ugh." McEwan's imagination teems with clambering spiders. But as an early example of McEwan's art and his project to redefine, or reinvent, the psychological horror story, this book is a worthy, if unsettling, read.
on April 7, 1998
"I did not kill my father," this slim novel begins, "but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way." Soon the mother is dead as well, and four children are left to fend for themselves in a secluded house in a dying part of the city.
There's Julie, the eldest, a ripe & willful beauty who's almost a woman; there's Jack, the narrator, a boy bewildered by his growing body & appetites; there's Sue, bookish & ever-observant; and then there's Tom, the baby of the family, who actually seems to get younger, regressing as the days go by. These four form an uneasy family, slowly learning to be self-sufficient in this strangely apocalyptic setting.
But an intruder in the form of Julie's new boyfriend threatens their fragile stasis by asking too many questions. How long have the four of them been alone? And just what is buried under the crumbling pile of cement in the basement?
This book has been mistakenly marketed as a horror novel; it's horrific, sure, but not as horrible as the pulp that defines the genre. What makes it particularly good is its characters, the children who are both recognizably sympathetic and exotically extraordinary.
Ian McEwan has created a taut & provocative thriller written in pitch-perfect and stripped-down prose. Beyond being a macabre morality tale, The Cement Garden is a psychological-suspense yarn, a perceptive portrayal of adolescence that will keep you riveted up to the final, climactic scene in an upstairs bedroom.
on March 16, 1998
Incest is the latest trendy topic- be it in book, movie, fiction, memoir- and it would be easy to brush it off as mere titillation. At first, "The Cement Garden" seems to be the epitome of this sort of gratuitously shocking genre, as it painstakingly gets inside the head of a young man and his secret desires. Upon closer examination, "The Cement Garden" reveals itself to be a far more ominous book. His desire for his sister becomes indicative of his need to grab an anchor in a world that has left him behind. As these four children struggle to make a family, the sexual energy that emerges becomes a better form of family love than that which they've known before. Though the children are English, they are the British equivalent of the kind of people we so quickly and easily make fun of- the natural target of a certain type of elitist humor. Rather than mocking these children for their transgression, the book's success comes when we ultimately understand the ways and the whys of why they do what they do. Therein lies the power, and the horror of the bleak landscape of the novel- it's the only love they'll maybe ever know. Having said that the book is an artistic achievement, I also want to add that when I finished it I couldn't be sure that I was glad I took that particular journey. I was utterly enthralled with the story and its raw honesty, but so depressed when it was over, as the world of the book was so hermetic and insular that there was no way out- necessary to the book but brutal on the reader. As an aside, the film adaptation is highly worth checking out as a most faithful visual translation, mostly as a result of the bizarrely appropriate casting. The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of French pop star Serge Gainsbourg and Chelsea girl Jane Birkin. (Serge and Charlotte appeared in bed together in a print ad in the early 80s.) Furthermore, the film is directed by Jane's brother and hence Charlotte's uncle Andrew Birkin, and the younger children are played by the director's own children- Charlotte's cousins.
on December 8, 2002
THE CEMENT GARDEN is the gripping story of a small family, isolated from society, and struggling with events for which society maintains strict rules. It is a well-crafted reflection on society and normalcy. It is technically well-written, poetic and confident in tone, a superb psychological portrait.
Four children, who previously lost their father, now tend their ailing mother, whom they will soon lose as well. Two boys and two girls (two young and two teenaged), they attend school as normal, but the family has always been isolated. The mother hardly let them leave the house when she was alive, so they do not know how to handle her body now that she's died, and take it to the basement. As a subplot, the older boy and girl explore sexuality with each other, in a candid scene.
Suprisingly, we are not bothered by these activities as such. McEwan's psychological portraits are convincing, and his characters seem entirely normal. His writing skill is evident when one realizes the sympathy with which these four characters are drawn.
The novel's tension comes unexpectedly from a banal source: The older girl has a boyfriend, a conventional person, but McEwan has convinced us the family is normal, so to us, the boyfriend is an outsider. How will the boyfriend act? Will he discover the secret? If so, will he reveal it? Will he become an insider, will he clean up the mess and help the four become legitimate, will he blackmail them, or will he tell society and let them be punished as normal? If the latter, will society punish them harshly?
At the end, one wonders how horrible the youth really were, even if they lived outside social norms. What is the line between innocently mistaken and socially unacceptable? The novel is an excellent exploration of this question, and the inquisitive reader may judge this matter for themself.
A minor complaint: I have heard the movie omits the book's last paragraph, which I think was wise. The author might have witheld the explicit conclusion, forcing the reader to guess what might happen. This does not detract from the book's quality in any way, nor the reader's ability to consider the matter in their own mind, on their own.
on July 2, 2003
This short novella deals with a similar theme to that of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, namely the behaviour of children and adolescents when free of the constraints of adult behaviour. Four siblings from a working-class family - Jack, the teenaged narrator, his older sister Julie, younger sister Sue and the youngest, Tom- are orphaned by the death of their mother, their father having died about two years earlier. In order to stay together and avoid being put into the care of the local authority, they conceal their mother's death by hiding her body in a trunk, filling it with cement and leaving it in the cellar of their house. As it is the summer holidays, there is no school for them to attend, and they spend the long, hot days in idleness. Apart from Tom, who occasionally plays with boys from a nearby tower block, the youngsters avoid contact with the outside world, until Julie introduces an outsider into their home in the shape of her older boyfriend Derek. The final denouement arises as a result of the conflict between Julie's relationship with Derek and the growing incestuous feelings between her and Jack.
The book was published in 1978 and, although there are no explicit period references, in many ways it reflects the mood of Britain in the late seventies. That was a time of economic recession, of industrial unrest, of unemployment, of concern about declining public services and the condition of the inner cities. (The period also saw some of the hottest summers of recent decades). The weak minority government of Prime Minister James Callaghan was widely perceived as being unable or unwilling to do anything about the country's problems. The era also saw a growing sense of youthful rebelliousness and resentment of adult authority which found its most extreme expression in the punk movement. Although a generation gap was not a new phenomenon, the mood of the young in the seventies was quite different to that of their older brothers and sisters in the sixties. Youthful rebellion in the hippy era often took the form of altruistic idealism, and even in its hedonistic forms tended to be joyous and optimistic. The rebellion of the young in the seventies, by contrast, tended to be more sour and resentful, characterised by a cynical pessimism.
The setting of the book is a bleak, impoverished district of an unnamed British inner city. The children's house is one of the few remaining in an area marked out for redevelopment, and is surrounded either by soulless tower blocks or by derelict, rubble-strewn wasteland. Their garden, one of the few islands of green in the area, has been concreted over by their father (hence the title of the book). A dustmen's' strike means that refuse is not being collected. There is a pervasive atmosphere of stifling heat and noxious odours. The children- Jack in particular- are cynical, apathetic and suspicious of the adult world in all its forms. Their independent life together has few positive attractions- its main features are boredom, squalor and quarrels- but they prefer it to the alternative of submitting to adult authority. The incestuous relationship between Jack and Julie can be seen as both the ultimate expression of family solidarity and as a conscious rejection of the taboos and conventions of the adult world.
A word that has been used by other reviewers about this book is "gothic". With two qualifications, that is a useful categorisation. The first qualification is that the so-called "gothic" movement in literature, a literature obsessed with death, darkness, gloom and despair, has very little connection with Gothic architecture, an architecture that celebrates life, light, colour and faith. The second qualification is that McEwan's work represents a modern development of the "gothic" tradition; he has abandoned the supernatural elements and exotic settings beloved of Georgian and Victorian gothic authors, but has retained their fascination with death, decay and the macabre and their emphasis on the darker side of human nature, including human sexuality, which can be treated with a greater freedom than was possible for earlier writers. (Besides the incest of Jack and Julie, Tom, the youngest child, who loves to dress as a girl, is presented as a budding transvestite).
McEwan's prose in this work is deliberately simple- the sentences are short, with few dependent clauses, and mostly describe concrete actions with little room for speculation or analysis of thoughts and feelings. (This is not surprising, given that it is narrated by a young boy of both limited education and limited experience). Despite the terseness of the prose and the desolate urban setting, however, this is not a work of social realism. If one tries to read it as realistic fiction, a number of details do not ring true. (Would the disappearance of the children's mother, for example, really have gone unnoticed by the outside world for so long, especially as she had been receiving medical treatment for her illness and had even arranged to go into hospital?) If, however, one reads it as a work of grim fantasy, it can be seen as an accomplished and powerful piece of work. The combination of matter-of-fact narration and bleak modern setting with macabre horror and bizarre happenings gives the work an eerie, hallucinatory quality; not so much a midsummer night's dream as a midsummer nightmare.
on March 9, 2002
"The Cement Garden" is one of the early novellas by Ian McEwan, a winner of the 1998 Booker Prize for his novel "Amsterdam". Perhaps there is a reason why this book is not as popular as it might be, given the later-day success of this writer, as indicated by the awards. "The Cement Garden" is a plot-driven story with a great potential which nevertheless has never been exploited.
The family of a marriage with four children falls apart when both parents suddenly die. Even here, in the very beginning of the book the storyline is unconvincing. After the father dies from stroke, the mother follows him in short order, apparently from incurable illness. In the very first chapter, the very first page even, when this information is passed to the reader - I wish the author had given some more thought to the actual events. The coincidence of their passing away is too artificial for my liking. Even the dysfunctionality of the family does not ring true. Of four children, only one appears to be sane, and what exactly is the probability that out of three teenagers and one toddler - one will turn out to be an early transvestite, and two others incestuous? The plot itself was bland, everything might be intuited right away. If only there was more to this book that the aforementioned storyline, that wouldn't hurt. Sadly, it isn't the case, as McEwan hints at the upcoming events in a bold fashion.
The potential of the tale was not explored, and McEwan seemed to hesitate as to the actual course of the story. Circling around the seemingly unexpected solution to the situation the four children found themselves in, McEwan never dared deliver what he undoubtedly wanted to. This novel was hailed as the second Lord of the Flies (originally written by William Golding), and it just might have been, but wasn't, when all is said and done. In the writing itself, there is no hint that the author would one day win the Booker Prize. Having just closed the last page I have not retained any memory of anything original to the writing style of McEwan. All faults of this book combined together give an impression of a forced work, where everything seems to be stretched and artificial.
In this discomforting 1978 novel, Booker Prize-winner Ian McEwan shows all the promise that makes his later, more fully developed novels so compelling--the same intensity, the same psychologically intriguing characters, the same haunting darkness, and the same exploration of sexuality. In the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere of an old house, one of the few left standing in a London urban renewal area strewn with rubble, a family of four children, ranging in age from six to seventeen, try to survive on their own after the death of their father, first, and then, their mother. Because the three younger children will have to go into "care" if their mother's death is known, they dispose of her body themselves in the basement of their decaying house and carry on as if their parents are still alive.
Seventeen-year-old Julie is ostensibly the adult in charge, though fifteen-year-old Jack has promised his dying mother that he will share the responsibilities. Jack, who narrates the story, is filled with all the sexual angst of an isolated young boy, never part of the mainstream, trying to figure out who he is, at the same time that he has been thrust into an adult role that he cannot fulfill. During the hottest summer on record, a new complication arises with the appearance of Julie's boyfriend, Derek, a man in his twenties, who upsets the fragile equilibrium of the family by investigating their secrets and seeking out the source of the sweetish smell emanating from the basement. All the emotional and sexual tensions which McEwan has nurtured throughout the novel peak in a conclusion that is both repulsive and utterly compelling.
This novel is not for the faint of heart, sometimes so revolting and disturbing in its psychological details, all vividly rendered, that the reader may question whether to continue reading. Ultimately, however, McEwan's concise and polished style, his ability to choose exactly the right word, and his sense of pacing kept this reader going, even as the family dynamics degenerated into a psychotic twilight zone. The sense that each character is alone and that life is dark and unlikely to change for the better is a despairing commentary on life, a bleak and chilling reminder that no one can ever control fate. Eerie, provocative, and suspenseful, McEwan uses all his talents here to create a novel of small scope and scale. In later novels, thankfully, he applies these same talents to a broader canvas, leading to richer, more subtle, and better developed fiction. Mary Whipple
on July 6, 2011
What's good about this book---the inherently eerie scenario of adolescents left to their own devices, the building feeling of dread, the essential tragedy of their situation---has been done before, and more effectively; I'm surprised not many (if any) readers & reviewers have pointed out the strong similarities between Cement Garden and Shirley ("The Lottery")Jackson's last novel, We Have Always Lived In The Castle, with more than a touch of V.C. Andrews' lurid-but-effective Flowers in the Attic.
All three books feature children left alone by their parents' deaths or abandonment; an older, dominant sibling who seems to drift toward a budding romance (or merely normal teenage concerns) that has us rooting for normality and a happy ending, then watching as that spark of hope flickers out. Additionally, 'Garden' & 'Castle' feature creepy kids who, for reasons that are not made terribly clear, seem to possess little or no conscience or sense of morality regarding others.
But where Jackson's 'Castle' had the warmth of the sisters' relationship with each other to give the story some emotional life---and Flowers in the Attic, while certainly the lowbrow entry in this circle, developed its characters perhaps the most fully, fleshing out their concerns & motivations---the kids in McEwan's Garden are uniformly offputting: weird, arrogant and cold, all with little apparent reason, at least none that we're privy to. We're given to suspect that their late father was a bit of an emotional bully, but it's never really demonstrated forcefully enough to explain why these four siblings are quite so cruel and malicious toward each other and so completely detached from the outside world.
As some others have said, the book is more like a sketch than a fully formed novel---some elements of literary power are there, but it's all too understated to make much of an impact.
on March 25, 2005
This is an essential McEwan novel from the start of his career which captivates through its 140-odd pages. Like all McEwan novels it starts shockingly and it maintains this throughout, without overstating itself: indeed, because the story is told through the eyes of Jack, engulfed in the events of the book, it comes out in a chillingly offhand manner. The way it actually plays with your mind so that part of you doesn't want them to be caught, though you know in reality that is what should occur, is particularly disturbing.
The characterisation in the book is superb: not only that of the children, who are extremely multi-faceted and complex, brought out in a concise and suggestive rather than explicit manner, but also the father, mother and boyfriend, none of whom are described in extreme detail, but all of whom are imaginable. The prose is unromantic and flat to reflect Jack's own tone, yet this is ultimately appropriate. Though it could have been longer, its brevity is an asset insofar as it feels like a finely drawn short story. Well worth a read.
on September 22, 2003
The material is so dark, so nonchalantly sinister, that one would expect it to be difficult to read. On the contrary, because McEwan is so brilliantly adept with character, the book reads like a page-turner. This is an amazing feat. McEwan shows us all of the narcissism and moral lapses of troubled teenagers, yet still somehow makes them lovable. Jack, Julie, Sue, and Tom are some of the most vividly rendered characters in fiction. Though McEwan's prose continued to improve in the years after THE CEMENT GARDEN, culminating with ATONEMENT, he had this basic and phenomenal ability even with his first book. It's fascinating to read such a talented debut after seeing his other works....