Tuesday, November 15, 2011

443. The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan

History: This book was written in 1978.
Plot: In The Cement Garden, the father of four children dies. His death is followed by the death of the children's mother. In order to avoid being taken into foster care, the children hide their mother's death from the outside world by encasing her corpse in cement in their basement. Two of the siblings, a teenage boy and girl, enter into an incestuous relationship, while the younger son, while being bullied at school, experiments with regression as a baby, and dressing up like a little girl..
The narrator is Jack (15), who has two sisters, Julie (17) and Sue (13), and one brother, Tom (6). When they were younger, Jack describes how he and Julie would play a 'game' with their sister Sue. This 'game' was similar to playing doctor, and involved stripping Sue of her clothes and inspecting her intimate body parts as if they were scientists observing a new life form. Jack then mentions how he longs to do the same to his older sister but it was not allowed. Jack is obsessed with masturbation.
When Julie begins to date a man called Derek and invites him round to their house, Jack feels jealous and shows hostility towards him. Derek becomes more and more interested in what is hidden in their cellar but the children attempt to hide it from him. When a smell begins to emanate from down there, he helps to reclose the trunk their mother is hidden in. Tom eventually tells Jack that Derek has told him that their mother is down in the cellar.
The story comes to a climax when Jack enters, apparently absent-mindedly, naked into Julie's bedroom. Only Tom is there and he begins to talk to him about their parents. They fall asleep together, in Tom's crib, naked because of the heat. Afterword, Julie enters and perhaps surprisingly, does not say much or show surprise on his nakedness, only to joke that 'It is big'. They sit on the bed and whilst talking, they become more and more intimate with each other. Julie encourages him to go on. Right at this point, Derek enters, remarks that he has seen it all and calls them 'sick'. When he is gone, they begin to have sex. A thudding noise can be heard and their sister, Sue, informs them that Derek is smashing up the concrete coffin. They begin to talk, remembering their mother, and after a while, they sleep, while police lights illuminate the room through the window.
Review: 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 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.
Subversion in age and role is the main theme in The Cement Garden. Burying the dead and engaging in sexual activity are probably the type of work anybody least expects to have befallen children. It’s not so much that they are free of supervision that shocks me, it’s the the banality of evil. The book is shocking, morbid, and full of repellent imagery.
Opening Line: “I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way.”
Closing Line: “There!” she said, “Wasn’t that a lovely sleep?”
Quotes: ” We hardly spoke at all to each other about Mother. She was everyone’s secret. Even Tom rarely mentioned her and only occasionally cried for her now. I looked around the cellar for other signs, but there was nothing.”
Rating: Good, weird. The British are so kinky.

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