I’ll begin with a bit of show and tell. This is the first paragraph of Ian McEwan’s 1978 novel The Cement Garden:
“I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way. And but for the fact that it corresponded with a landmark in my own physical growth, his death seemed insignificant compared to what followed. My sisters and I talked about him the week after he died, and Sue certainly cried when the ambulance men tucked him up in a bright red blanket and carried him away. He was a frail, irascible, obsessive man with yellowish hands and face. I am only including the little story of his death to explain how my sisters and I came to have such a large quantity of cement at our disposal” (13).
This is such a striking first paragraph, especially when examined in the context of the novel as a whole. The first sentence is fascinating, of course, and once it becomes clear that this is a novel about the way we take on guilt we don’t deserve and don’t understand, it becomes especially resonant. The speaker is Jack, the novel’s first-person narrator, who is fourteen at the outset of the novel. Having already sustained two heart attacks, Jack’s father nevertheless orders a truckload of cement, which he means to use to finish his work on the family’s garden, which he “had constructed rather than cultivated” (19) and which was almost entirely plant-free, with the exception of a small “lawn” that somehow or other is situated on top of a pile of rocks. As uncomfortable as such a lawn sounds, Jack’s sister Julie sunbathes on it often in her green bikini. When Jack helped his father mix and lay the cement, he felt that he lagged behind and worked more slowly than he could have and that his father died of his third heart attack because he had had to do Jack’s work as well as his own. Jack finds his father lying face-down in a hardening bed of cement.
The “landmark in [Jack’s] physical growth” referred to above is his first ejaculation, which takes place after a game that Jack routinely plays with his sisters, Julie and Sue. This game is of the “playing doctor” variety, but is made somewhat more disturbing and less innocent than usual by the fact that Jack and his siblings are either in or almost in their teens (they are 16, 14, and 12) when they stop playing the game. I am not going to quote from the description of the game, but will say that it is on the third page of the novel and that I practically froze when I read it. Rarely have I seen a page of narration early in a novel so effectively set the stage for the events to come.
Shortly after Jack’s father dies, his mother becomes bedridden. The reader never knows what kind of illness she has because Jack never knows what kind of illness she has. One day she asks Jack to come to her bedroom alone and tells him that she will be going into the hospital soon and that he will need to help Julie and serve as co-leader of the family until she recovers. Three days later, Jack and Julie come home from school and find her dead. Paralyzed by the shock of seeing their mother’s body, Julie and Jack quickly shut the door to her bedroom and lock it. They tell their younger siblings – twelve year-old Sue and five-year-old Tom – what has happened, and then they enter into a long summer of absolute aimlessness and solitude. They stay awake round the clock, taking naps here and there when sleep overtakes them. They let food and dishes pile up in the kitchen until the place crawls with bugs. Each sibling develops his/her own coping mechanism. Jack, for some reason, decides to stop bathing. Julie disappears for longer and longer periods of time, not just on errands but on dates with a professional snooker player(!) named Derek. Sue locks herself in her room and reads for hours at a time (now THERE’S a coping device that makes some sense!), and Tom decides that he wants to be a girl and begins dressing in his sisters’ clothes and wearing a wig.
Of course, sooner or later they have to attend to the matter of their mother’s body. I’ll hold off on telling you what they do, except to say that it’s all foreshadowed in the novel’s title and in the first paragraph that I quoted above. Their choice of – ummm – interment method is not a good one, of course, but these are four overwhelmed, grief-stricken kids who are doing the best they can. The real weight of this novel, as you’ve probably already remarked, is the fact that this family lives (and, it seems, has always lived) in absolute solitude. The “cement” of the title is a reference not only to the family’s garden but to their neighborhood as a whole. Jack’s family lives in one of the only inhabited single-family houses on the street – the rest are in various stages of disrepair, and the neighborhood kids often play in the stripped-down, abandoned homes of their former neighbors. Down the street, construction has begun on some “tower blocks,” which I think might be British English for “housing projects.” McEwan (deliberately, I assume) does not anchor his novel in time. No technology more modern than the radio is mentioned, and the family does not seem to own a car, so I’m thinking this novel might be set in post-war “austerity” England, and the tower blocks are being built to replace buildings destroyed during the war. My guess might be wrong, but what’s important here is that as far as Jack and his siblings are concerned, their entire known world is being transformed into a “cement garden.”
And then the ending is disturbing. I’m just saying.
This is a short, compact, riveting novel. In some ways I was aware that the Ian McEwan who wrote this novel was less experienced than the Ian Ewan of Atonement and The Children Act, but even with less experience he was a fine storyteller. While in some ways the events of this novel are far-fetched, the characters do all behave in plausible ways given their increasingly desperate situation. And, as I wrote earlier, this is a novel about guilt. Guilt is the “cement” that seeps into the cracks of this family, paralyzing the children in the places where they were once soft. And guilt, like most irrational emotions, can almost always make a novel feel relevant and new.