The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan - Book Review - Kristopher Cook

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan Book Cover
In the relentless summer heat, four abruptly orphaned children retreat into a shadowy, isolated world, and find their own strange and unsettling ways of fending for themselves.
Genre: Contemporary

A Sexual gothic horror unlike any other. With flirtations of death, romances of incest, and the brutality of exploitation, Ian McEwan goes all out to deliver a stomach-churning experience you won’t forget in a hurry.

Jack, aged 14, aims to follow his recently deceased father’s steps by ruling over the family. His mother struggles to make ends meet, unable to look after her children properly; Jack, Julie, Sue and young Tom.

As their mother becomes ill and eventually dies, they must decide to either call the police and almost certainly be taken into care, or bury the body to hide the evidence. They choose the latter.

Jack develops an obsessive crush on his older sister Julie, looking to recreate the parents’ roles over their siblings with the children providing for themselves. However, this creates a tentative love-triangle between Jack, Julie, and her new boyfriend, Derek.

My sisters and I no longer played together on Julie’s bed. The games ceased not long after Father died, although it was not his death that brought them to an end. Sue became reluctant. Perhaps she had learned something at school and was ashamed of herself for letting us do things to her.

Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden

A Council Blockade

Given that the book was initially published in 1978, I can understand the controversy surrounding it.

Initial reviews were positive, and the book was considered a success, and in recent years the book has gained a much more prominent reputation. This has helped to cement it (sorry!) as a cult hit.

I believe this comes from its brave portrayal of poverty in the British working class and its environmental design.

Being set within an English council estate certainly grounds the book in a harsh land from the onset. The bland concrete atmosphere sets the definitive tone for the story ahead.

At times, this did lead me towards similarities to J.G. Ballard’s work, especially Crash. Large amounts of effort to describe the harsh concrete structures that cover our once green Earth.

A Lurid Style

Despite the lurid content and the gruesome context of The Cement Garden, there lies a well-assorted quality.

The writing is clear and crisp, with sentences feeling short and abundant. This adds an almost surreal, talkative effect to the book; much like Jack’s frantic personality. It also serves to increase the tension as the family begins to fall apart.

Jack describes his mother in the following manner. ‘Her face mixed Julie’s features with Sue’s, as though she were their child. The skin was smooth and taut over the fine cheekbones.‘ This also sets the tone for the role reversals which take place as the book progresses.

Speaking of the family, there’s no one here to latch on to particularly. Although Sue and Tom are fairly innocent, they’re not the main focus, so don’t develop much along the way.

Tom, way after the death of his parents decides he now wants to be a girl.

There’s a certain cerebral quality here to McEwan’s writing because this change fits nicely with the ever-changing dynamic of the family. As Tom has begun to distance himself from Jack, he feels the only way to find friendship is by becoming one of the girls.

Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s okay to be a boy, for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.

Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden

Jack, on the other hand, is an entirely vile human being – but then there’s the argument that it was his environment that made him this way. A father who was abusive and always shouting at his mother, taking everything out on her had its effect on him.

His mother then chose to ignore anything terrible that happened and quickly swept it under the rug. It gets to the point that this is even detrimental to her health in the end.

These instances lead to a few silly moments, such as where to put the body and the overall hiding of the truth. However, this also adds a slight quirk to the narrative when viewed as a whole.

Closing Thoughts

The Cement Garden is an excellent if at times, difficult book to read.

The writing is crisp and clear, often presenting a frenetic quality that increases tension as the plot unfolds. The characters are as repellent as the narrative of deceit and hinge on the line of repugnant.

However, it is still a book of excellent quality, especially portraying McEwan’s early progression into realms that most authors fear to tread.

If you’re a fan of J.G. Ballard or Hubert Selby Jr, then I’d definitely recommend checking The Cement Garden out. You might get a book that stays in the recesses of your mind long after reading.

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