Review: “The Cement Garden” by Ian McEwan [1978]

The Cement Garden is about four children from a slightly unusual family who are suddenly orphaned during one hot summer. We follow the eldest boy, Jack, who is at the awkward and confusing teenage stage and torn between wanting to be the boss of the house and being mothered. Jack adores his older sister, Julie, and his adoration splits between familial love and sexual lust. This may sound repulsive but when contained within the nature of the story and the isolation of the family, it seems almost like a natural progression. When they were younger, Julie and Jack used to play a game with their younger sister, Sue, where they would strip their sister naked, lie her on the bed and pretend to be doctors examining an alien, prodding and poking her. It is only when they become older that they realise the game is quite sexual. Soon after their father dies, their mother quickly follows and the children, along with their seven-year-old youngest brother Tom, decide to dispose of their mother’s body secretly so that authorities won’t separate them.

As the summer progresses, time seems to slip away and Jack pushes his mother out of his mind. He becomes listless and aggressive while Sue locks herself in her room. Tom misses his mother and comforts himself by cross-dressing or pretending to be a baby and Julie allows the family isolation to be invaded when she gets a boyfriend. The cracks soon spread as it would undoubtedly do so in a household run by teenagers and the novel ends on a rather bizarre note.

As the novel is quite short, I can’t say too much in this review without giving away the entire story but Ian McEwan’s debut novel is simply a marvelous and intriguing read and could possibly be one of the best first novels I’ve read. The word ‘polished’ comes to mind when I try to describe the writing. The repressive long, hot summer must be McEwan’s favourite environment to set his stories of the unusual suburbia in as he uses it again in Atonement but hot summers is undoubtedly one of those times that cause people to act in strange ways.

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10 comments

    1. Mine too. I’m amazed that it’s his first novel.

      The worse, or perhaps best, thing was that I was really hoping that nobody would find out about the body and the children and that they’ll make it on their own.

  1. I’ve known this book for a long time, but I’m not sure if I dare to read it, as the storyline is quite bizarre. Maybe when the time is right. I’ve read Atonement and On Chesil Beach and thought they’re both interesting and memorable. McEwan’s books definitely appeal to me!

    1. I think you should definitely read it. The bizarreness is actually quite minimal and, curiously, it wasn’t all that disturbing considering that there is an element of incest. I think what is most bizarre is the way Jack perceives his world of the typical suburbia.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I think you’re right about the credibility of the characters especially Jack. They all remain fairly distant.

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