Here’s Jacques on The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan…
For many readers, Ian McEwan is “Amsterdam”, “Atonement”, “Saturday”, and more recently “On Chesil Beach” and “Solar”. But for others, like myself, it is “In Between the Sheets”, “The Child in Time”, “First Rites, Last Rites”. But mostly, it is “The Comfort Strangers” and “The Cement Garden”. The latter, published in 1978, is a classic of the gothic genre, an exploration into the darkness of a family’s gloomy life after both parents die, months apart.
The four siblings, two boys aged 15 (Jack) and 6 (Tom), and two girls aged 17 (Julie) and 13 (Sue) are suddenly orphans. Fearing they’d end up in different homes, and to prevent Tom from being placed for adoption, the children decide to hide the death of their mother from the authorities, thus keeping the family together. They place her in an old trunk in the cellar, pouring cement into it to bury her in.
The family has always lived in a remote and depressing area where houses have recently been demolished, theirs being one of the few left standing. They have no visitors, no relatives either. After a period of time where none of them seems to know how to grieve, the four children go on almost as usual, carrying in themselves the weight of their tragedy.
Jack, the narrator of the story, just wanted to be like everyone else but the loss of his father cracks something in him; he goes through a rebellious phase during which he neither cleans himself nor even changes his clothes. He spends the days masturbating, being mean to everyone, and daydreaming. His mind is a tormented and dark place where he loses himself; even his dreams are made of twisted Freudian scenes and filled with desperation.
Being the oldest, Julie soon becomes the surrogate mother, especially for young Tom who is the most traumatized from the loss of his mother. After getting beat up at school, he starts dressing up as a girl “because you don’t get hit when you’re a girl”; after his mother’s death his behaviour regresses into that of a baby.
As the family nucleus starts showing signs of weakness, so does the mother’s cement coffin, which is slowly splitting open; a foul odour from within spreads out and fills the house; like Poe’s tell-tale heart beating deafeningly, the overwhelming stench reminds the children of what they’ve done and of “what” is down there.
Ian McEwan brilliantly shows us the sad fate of four children that society has not only abandoned, but also forgotten. Telling their story from the perspective of the teenage boy, whose mind is as much troubled by his need of a fatherly presence as it is by his family’s isolation, is a brilliant, effective idea. The writing is voluntarily detached, almost emotionless, more observing than involved. It works so deeply on the reader that I read the whole story without feeling much of anything, numbed by the shocking events taking place in that house. As soon as I closed the book though, I felt something: it was a void. I was emotionally drained, emptied out.
A book like that stays with you a long time. I’ve recently read it again, and it was as if I had only left these kids a few minutes ago. The book had the same effect it had brought upon me fifteen years before when I first read it.
– Jacques Filippi
The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.