Saturday, 17 October 2009

Review: The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

Title: The Cement Garden

Author: Ian McEwan

Year: 1978

Rating: 3/5

Plot: After the death of their parents, four children try to come to terms with their grief and relationships with each other.

Review: I've been on an Ian McEwan hiatus since I read his collection of short stories, In Between the Sheets, earlier this year. In Between the Sheets was released in the same year as The Cement Garden and, I later found out, released to coincide with McEwan's debut novel as a double publicity feat. It was rushed and not up to his usual standard of work in my eyes. I was disappointed and distanced myself from a former favourite author for succumbing to publisher's demands rather than write for himself.

I picked up The Cement Garden (gathering dust on my TBR pile for nearly a year) a few weeks ago and decided to take a chance on McEwan's writing once again. Luckily, this time, I wasn't disappointed.

Jack is our teenage protagonist, living with his two sisters, Julie and Sue, and his younger brother, Tom, after the death of their father. Unable to cope with an unmentioned illness and the loss of her husband, their mother takes to her bed for a couple of weeks before passing away too. The children realise that without parents, they will likely be taken into care so, to avoid being split up, they hide their mother's death from the world by taking her to the basement and covering her with cement.

The story then continues with each child trying to cope with their own grief and responsibilities in an adult world. As Sue begins to lose herself in her books more and more, little Tom starts to experiment with transvestism while also resorting to acting like a toddler in front his mother-ish older sisters. Meanwhile, teenagers Julie and Jack enter into an incestuous relationship.

Having read some of McEwan's later work (Atonement, On Chesil Beach) and some of his earlier (First Love, Last Rites, In Between the Sheets) it's fair to say that as time went on, he improved with his writing and found his niche. As a young author, it's clear from his work that McEwan's full of ideas that he needs to get down on page as quickly as possible. More to the point he seems fearless and not afraid to shock.

In his debut novel, McEwan tackles the subjects of death, incest, and transvestism. I imagine that in 1978 these topics were even more taboo than over 30 years later. What's interesting about McEwan's approach is that he doesn't tiptoe around these things. Jack and Julie's attraction to each other is never hidden and they are not wary or careful about what they might do. To them it is one of the most natural things in the world and, following the death of their parents, they are thrown together even more for comfort.

This is a disturbing novel, I'm not going to lie. I've been surprised at how intolerant some of the book blogging community are towards certain books - they'll quote a passage and deem it 'disgusting and dark' while I'll sit back and think, "You haven't lived! I've read way more disturbing things that that!" A lot of people will think this book is weird and strange and kooky while touching on things that can make a lot of people feel uncomfortable. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that McEwan almost seems unsure of himself at times.

Reading the novels he's written in his later years, you can see that he's taken a hold of his talent and knows how to use it. A young McEwan struggles at times with his first novel; It feels like he doesn't know how to display his talents properly and use them to their full extent yet. Nevertheless it's a fascinating read. The children don't seem relatable a lot of the time and act in strange ways but that could be McEwan's ways of showing us that these children really are alone, have no structure, don't know how to deal with their emotions and loss, and live in an isolated world that they create for themselves.

I'd recommend reading this if you don't mind unusual atmospheres and situations and aren't instantly offended by taboo subjects. While this wasn't one of my favourites of McEwan's, I still enjoyed it and thought it was a good debut from him. I'm glad I've gotten over my hiatus, will definitely be carrying on with more of his books in the future, and look forward to observing him grow as a writer through his work.  


Amanda said...

I don't know that I want to give McEwan another chance. I didn't like Atonement at all, and I've heard his other books are like that, too. :( It's sad, I really wanted to like him.

The Bookworm said...

I've never read him, this one does sound a bit disturbing though.
I do want to read some of his work one day.
Great review. I'm not one to be instantly offended.

B.Kienapple said...

Great (& balanced) review, glad to have found your blog! I've seen the movie based on this book and really enjoyed it so I'll have to read the real deal.

kay - Infinite Shelf said...

Great review!
I really liked Atonement, and I would love to read another novel by McEwan, but I have read mixed reviews on this one so I think I'll start somewhere else!

Ceri said...

Amanda - If you weren't impressed with Atonement, I wouldn't bother. :-S

Naida - If you're not instantly offended, you might enjoy his writing... though I do recommend starting with his later work. :)

B - Thank you, you too. I want to see the film now too. :)

Kay - Thanks. Yeah, I would start elsewhere too. I'd recommend his later books.

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