Saturday, January 12, 2008

book review - The Cement Garden

Sometimes authors choose to allude to a case of cause and effect and in other cases the results become the content of the novel. Ian McEwan chooses to show the consequences of the death of both parents to a family of four, all at various ages under 19.

The first to go is the father, who is remote and not particularly missed after he keels over with a heart attack while laying out a cement path in the garden. The family gravitates around the mother but she is ill and starts to head downhill. Even before she dies each of the children have had some character quirks outlined. The main focus, Jack, starts to lose interest in hygiene and social relationships and his much younger brother Tom toys with the idea of becoming a girl. The mother is ironically not that strong a character. She doesn't say a great deal and for the last few weeks of her life she is bedbound. But her death removes any pretence that the family can carry on as normal.

Once the mother dies the cracks, both literal and metaphorical appear and the house, with its cement filled garden, becomes cut off from reality in almost every sense of the word. The cement is used to bury the mother in a trunk in the cellar. Finally there is an entrant from the outside worlds in the form of the eldest girl’s boyfriend. He discovers the secret in the cellar and in the end, after catching jack and his sister involved in incest, calls in social services to end the situation.

But before Derek makes the call to get other people involved with the family things have really fallen apart. Tom has started dressing as a girl and then entered a baby phase. Sue the next in age lives in the pages of her diary, which she addresses to her mother. Jack drifts through the day never knowing the time or washing and Julie plays at being the mother but has a tendency to revert to being immature.

Without the support and the moral guidelines of the mother the children quickly lose routine, self-responsibility and any motivation for interacting with the world and the prospect of returning to school at the end of the holidays is dismissed by Jack.

The final scene has been brewing and in some ways is over done in that you almost don’t need to see where the logical conclusion of their world goes without boundaries. What you have to give McEwan credit for is the ability to create a sense of place. The summer heat and the strangeness of the large house with the corpse in the cellar is something you can picture very clearly. Of the few McEwan books I have managed to read it is always this sense of place that is brilliantly done and it is the same here. The story might not always be comfortable to read and the way of showing how the grief is impacting the children sometimes feel too much but it does leave you thinking and that is a positive.

Version read - Vintage paperback

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