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the cement garden

26 august 2021

Ian McEwan's first novel, The Cement Garden (1978), is basically Saturday Night and Sunday Morning meets Lord of the Flies.

You've got your kitchen-sink elements (including a literal, disgusting kitchen sink), the lads at the snooker hall, the depressing housing estate; and you've got a quartet of children suddenly abandoned and left to fend for themselves, with ghastly results. The fusion of these two genres means that The Cement Garden never quite takes place in a realized fictional world.

Even Lord of the Flies, while fantastic in its development, is tethered to the plausibility of the Robinson-Crusoe genre. But in The Cement Garden, a family of four minor children can bury Mum in the basement under plenty of the title material and then go about their business, getting supplies, paying the utilities. It's possible that their local council doesn't offer a robust suite of social services. But it becomes preternatural when Mum had apparently no adult relatives, friends, acquaintances, or anybody to wonder at her vanishing.

So of course this isn't really a condition-of-England novel; it's a funhouse mirror on the condition of England in the 1970s, on its alienations, its amorality, its festering mixture of regrowth and decay.

Our narrator is Jack, the adolescent second-oldest of four children (Julie is older, Sue and Tom younger). Their father dies as the story begins, in the middle of a landscaping project which, says Jack in one of the great first-paragraph-closing sentences, explains "how my sisters and I came to have such a large quantity of cement at our disposal" (3). Their mother takes to her bed awhile later and soon dies in her turn and departs for that cement-filled trunk in the cellar. And then their problems really begin.

Jack broods on his sisters' bodies as he masturbates constantly, and that's the most innocent and light-hearted part of the novel. Julie takes up with a randy snooker pro, she and Sue dress the gender-uncertain Tom in girls' clothes, and Mum, under an insufficient coat of cement, begins to moulder. The kids have money (how?) and keep on blithely attending a school run by very incurious authorities. Finally things boil over in directions that, if this hadn't been his first novel, one would have called McEwanian.

I had read most of McEwan's subsequent novels, but never ran across The Cement Garden till I spotted a garish red 1980s American mass-market paperback in a bookstore. General fiction like The Cement Garden doesn't even appear in mass-market paperback anymore, but I should check those shelves more closely for the odd rough gem like this one. It's got (intentionally) yellow-stained page edges and screaming cover blurbs ("MACABRE! DEVASTATING! ASTONISHING!") and a frighteningly young Ian McEwan on the back, looking a bit like the doomed John Lennon in wire-rimmed glasses and patterned vest.

I don't know about The Cement Garden. It is a first novel by a young writer and it is certainly readable enough. Even when things get ridiculous in the later going, the plot is locomotive and draws you along toward its terminus. In many ways it's a fairly standard adolescent-angst novel that turns macabre/devastating/astonishing because it's the 1970s and suddenly, in English fiction, one can. That makes The Cement Garden pretty interesting as a period piece, despite its lack of much local period color.

McEwan, Ian. The Cement Garden. 1978. New York: Berkley, 1980.