Anchor, 1978, 153 pages
One of the world's most acclaimed novelists, New York Times best-selling author Ian McEwan has earned the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. After their parents die, four children are left alone in the family house. They are free to live however they choose, but they must preserve their terrible secret.
"I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way."
Now that is a great opening line. And after that promising beginning, I wish I could say that I enjoyed The Cement Garden, but to the contrary, by the time I finished this mercifully brief book, I wanted a bleach bath.
This book is another one to contrast with superficially similar Young Adult novels, about which I have often been told by YA fans that "contemporary YA" is, like, totally contemporary and deep and dark and grim, man, and talks about serious shit and it's real life, man, and totally not juvenilia that gives a superficial treatment of growing-up issues or disturbing themes.
There are certainly YA books that deal with secrets, dead parents, horrifically dysfunctional sibling relationships, and masturbation, but I doubt any of them have ever executed these themes with the literary sparseness and claustrophobic intensity of The Cement Garden. If grimdark contemporary with teen/preteen characters is your bag, then this book should please you, and you will not find such a macabre tale told with such straightforward but uncompromising prose on the YA shelves.
That said, you could go read Flowers in the Attic and probably be entertained more.
Ian McEwan is now a big name author who's won the Man Booker Prize and had Oscar-winning movies made from his books, but The Cement Garden is one of his earliest works. It's also the first book by him that I have read, and I kind of hope it's the last now. There seems to be a breed of English writer — Ian McEwan, John Banville, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, J.M. Coetzee (a South African writer, but of English literature), who specialize in stories of grim, joyless, sexually dysfunctional existence, in McEwan's case embellished with unsentimentalized descriptions of bodily functions and excretions.
In this urban-gothic novel which is really a short story inflated just past novella length, four children live alone in a house surrounded by tower blocks, in a sort of blighted urban Never Never Land in which you can hear Pink Floyd wailing in the background. The first few pages describe their parents, both of them pathetic, friendless, sickly people, in just enough detail to give you an idea of how they created this brood of spiritless children. Their father dies, and then their mother, and since they have no friends or close relations, they decide to keep it secret and live on their own, sustained by regular payments mailed from a trust fund their mother set up.
Even before their parents died, they were creepy and dysfunctional, but without adult supervision, they quickly turn feral, letting food rot in the kitchen and ignoring the smells and the flies that accumulate in the house.
Oldest sister Julie is pretty, popular, and athletic. She becomes the take-charge den mother of this savage household. Jack, the first person narrator, a friendless loser whose sole hobby is masturbation (usually thinking about his sister), decides to stop bathing or changing his clothes. His lack of personal hygiene becomes practically pathological: at one point we are treated to a description of how he ejaculates on the back of his hand and decides to let it dry there and goes downstairs with his unwashed hands to hang out with his siblings.
That's not even the biggest "eww" in the book. If you like reading about snot, shit, piss, blood, and semen, McEwan covers all the bases.
Sue, Jack's younger sister, writes everything in her journal. She seems, like Julie, to be almost normal, except she's the one who let Jack and Julie play "doctor" with her.
Meanwhile, Tom, the youngest, first decides he'd like to be a girl, then that he'd like to be a baby. You can practically see this child regressing into something fetal.
It is hard to imagine any of these creatures growing up psychologically healthy. But there is a secret in their cellar, hinted at by the title, and since none of them are particularly smart or good at planning, it is bound to end badly.
By the end of this book I was about as grossed out as I have ever been by a book not written by Robert Heinlein or Piers Anthony.
The Cement Garden (1993)
The Cement Garden was made into a 1993 movie, but I am unable to review it. It is not available on Netflix, and I'm not nearly interested enough in seeing it to buy it off of E-bay.
Here's a clip though.
Verdict: The Cement Garden is intense, disturbing, and yucky. It's written by an author acknowledged as one of the greatest living authors, and fuck me if I want to read another book by him. Is this a book you must read before you die? There are people who I'm sure like the kind of book that exists to unsettle you, and it's a terse, literary alternative to Flowers in the Attic. But I could have lived happily without reading it.
This was my 20th book read in the 1001 Books challenge.
My complete list of book reviews.