Before deciding to read The Cement Garden for my TBR challenge I knew nothing about the book’s contents. I’ve vaguely heard about its scandalous contents and knew that it was written by the amazing Ian McEwan. And so it was nagging me in the back of my head for a few years, until 2013 seemed like a good year to check it off my list. Right before the actual reading session I logged into Goodreads to see what other people think about the book. I’ve encountered words like “amazing”, “shocking”, “disgusting” and “creepy”, and knew this will be something I would either passionately love or strongly hate. Well, The Cement Garden wasn’t my first “shocking” book, so I was pretty sure I was going to enjoy it regardless.
Warning: some disturbing content is to be discussed. If you are easily offended, please avoid this post.
McEwan has dipped his pen in several different genres over the years. This time he created a strange psychological story of Jack, a fifteen-year-old boy who likes to play doctor with two of his sisters and is romantically attracted to the older one. Now, maybe it is because I am the only child and cannot completely relate to the grossness of being intimate with one’s sibling, but I could easily bypass the uncomfortable barrier of discussion of incest among children that might have thrown other readers way out of their comfort zone. Instead I was being able to look at it from sociological and psychological points of view and try to figure out the reason behind this behavior. It might be an inconvenient truth, but it is not that uncommon for children to be curious about sex and anatomy of the opposite gender. It also happens that sometimes they satisfy that curiosity with the most accessible means available, ie. their siblings or close friends. And we are not talking about engaging in intercourse like adults do, because kids just don’t know the mechanics behind it, but exploring each other closely, very much like Jack, Julie and Sue did, could happen. It seemed that Sue eventually figured out that what they were doing was wrong, because she stopped participating in the game. Jack even commented that she must have learned something in school that made her feel embarrassed about it. When reminded about the incidents, Sue seemed to put on a mental block on her memories, which probably indicated her acceptance of social conformities, while her older siblings Jack and Julie continued to live in their mental bubble confined to the house premises. What makes it more disturbing for me, is the realization that Jack and Julie (who is seventeen in the story) were a little too old not to know the difference between taboos and social norms, and to be merely engaging in some childish curiosity.
So what about the parents? Soon after the story began the children lost their father to a tragic accident. Their mother, struck by grief, remained bed-ridden, leaving Julie in charge of the kids. I find the mother to be a very passive character, but not undeserving of compassion. She could have been stronger and taking charge around the house after her husband’s death, but she chose to give up. At the same time she was realistic about her illness and made sure that her children were taken care of financially after her own death. Her biggest downfall in the book was perhaps her treatment of Jack – the one character who truly needed guidance. At one point she hinted to Jack (because she is uncomfortable to say it straight), that masturbating was evil and every time he did it a puppy died (or something along the lines). Basically, this teenage boy, with all his hormones and confusions, was left alone in the dark about his own sexuality. But I guess those were the seventies, and that was how things were done. She never forced him to upkeep his personal hygiene either, which speaks loudly of her abandoning Jack to his own care. When the mom died Jack had a genius idea to hide her body in cement in the basement, so that the children wouldn’t be separated by foster families. They cried for their loss, but they also laughed randomly at the corpse. I think their jests stemmed from the fact that they had no idea how to accept death or how to act in face of it. Their mother never explained to them exactly what happened to the father; she never helped them deal with the loss. As the result, the children viewed death as something foreign, saddening of course, but at the same time a curiosity on its own.
During this time Tom, who is the youngest of kids, being only six, underwent his own change due to lack of parental supervision. He didn’t understand that his mother was dead and was constantly asking for her. Perhaps to attract attention of the missing mom, he slowly reverted back to being a baby: sleeping in the crib, eating from the bottle, and having tantrums. With this backward transformation, just like Sue, Tom managed to isolate and bury his painful memories inside, eventually forgetting about mother’s existence and believing that it was indeed Jack’s dog that was hidden in the cement downstairs. To the amusement of his sisters Tom suddenly requested to be dressed like a girl, and began enjoying looking at himself in the mirror while wearing a dress. Jack even tried to find out if Tom really associates himself with female gender, or if he just likes dresses, to which the boy was reluctant to reply. He confessed that he often played house with one of his best friends, pretending to be Julie, while his friend was playing Jack. Again, he was reluctant to specify what exactly those games implied. I think Tom was emotionally confused about not having a parent figure around, and seeing Jack and Julie together gave him a sense of a family that he needed. As for his cross-dressing habits, I would love to hear someone else’s opinion on it.
I talked a lot about Jack, Sue and Tom, but not so much about Julie, who was supposed to be the head of the household after mother’s death. She was seventeen and dating an older guy named Derek, who occasionally would stop by the house to great jealousy of Jack. Derek was kind of a repulsive character. The children in this novel might have done some nasty things, but there is no other person in the book more loathsome than this guy. McEwan presented everyone with brutal honesty, which immediately shocked the reader, but also never made you expect anything else from them. But Derek was depicted in a more subtle manner. At first he seemed like a cool, nice, normal guy, but soon I realized how much of a creep he was. All of a sudden he began prying into the private business of the house, asking when mother died, how the kids had been living alone, what kind of secret they were hiding in the basement. And he wasn’t asking it out of genuine concern, but as if he just wanted to be in on the conspiracy no matter the grisly details. He finally found out about the cement tomb in the basement and actually suggested to fix the cracks so that the smell wouldn’t seep through and upstairs. Now stop for a minute and think about it: this guy finds out these kids have their mother’s corpse cemented and he enthusiastically jumps in to help without anyone even asking him for input. Yet, in the finale when he realized that Julie was not about to put out for him because of her relationship with her brother, suddenly the body downstairs was a big deal to him, – big enough to break the tomb and call the police. Who is sick now?
Well that was a very short little novella, but as you can see I keep rambling on and on about all the fascinating issues it brought forward. I can see why some people found the book “disgusting” and I can also see how “amazing” fits in. I am a firm believer in a notion that good literature is literature that makes your strongly react and deeply think. It should be able to stop you in your tracks, so you can shout “Holy cow!” and learn something about yourself. I think McEwan did a great job, especially considering a controversial subject matter. I wouldn’t go around recommending this one to a casual reader or somebody who is easily upset by unconventional topics, but I also am not going to be ashamed of having this on my shelf. I’m sure it’s better than displaying some Fifty Shades of Grey.