The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan (1978) 138 p.
Despite having lived here for a year, I have a subconscious stereotypical vision of England – perhaps most Australians do – as a dour and bleak and irredeemably brown place which is fundamentally linked to the 1970s and 1980s. Council estates, concrete, flared jeans, Northern accents and a biting cold and an endlessly overcast sky. This isn’t real, of course, anymore than the posh Downton Abbey or quirky Richard Curtis visions of England are real. But the cover of this edition of The Cement Garden is perhaps a perfect distillation of that sort of Ballardian, Thatcherite feeling. I don’t know, maybe the ’70s were just bleak everywhere. But apart from the fact that it takes place over summer, The Cement Garden is certainly a grey and grimy novel, portraying macabre events on the outskirts of an unnamed town in a windswept, derelict neighbourhood where few houses remains standing.
This is McEwan’s first novel, continuing my recent trend of inexplicably sampling new authors by reading their first and probably weakest books. It follows a family of four children, narrated by the 13-year old Jack, his 16-year-old sister Julie, his 12-year-old sister Sue and their youngest brother, Tom, who I think was meant to be around primary school age. Their father dies early in the book of a heart attack, and it becomes clear that they are an odd and self-contained family unit. They have few outside friends and no outside relatives, the children are sexually experimenting with each other, and their mother confines herself to her bedroom after their father’s death. Some time later she grows ill and eventually dies of cancer. Fearing that they will be split up and sent off to foster homes, the children conspire to hide her corpse in a trunk in the basement and cover it up with concrete.
This is a weirdly compelling and readable book – its short length helps – and it’s pretty much a classic case of a debut novel, in that it’s well-written and objectively good, but ultimately pointless and unmemorable. It’s also very much a Schroedinger’s cat sort of story – like The Lord of the Flies or the movie Buried – in which you’re presented with a gut-wrenching scenario and you want to see which of two possible outcomes will occur, i.e. whether anybody in the outside world finds out about their mother or not.
Ian McEwan is a contemporary grandee of English letters, but I can’t say I feel hugely compelled to keep reading his work; not because I expect a debut novel to be brilliant, but because I feel I got a pretty good impression of his writing style, which is readable but bland. Nonetheless, I want to read every Booker Prize winner, so I’ll have to read Amsterdam, even though I’ve heard it’s one of his weaker novels and was more of a lifetime achievement award. I may also read Atonement, since the film adaptation was excellent.