In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor writes: “A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality. I lent some stories to a country lady who lives down the road from me, and when she returned them, she said, ‘Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do,’ and I thought to myself that that was right; when you write stories, you have to be content to start exactly there—showing how some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.” I thought of this passage, one I have read many times, all the way through my reading of The Cement Garden.
The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan’s first novel, was published in 1978, and it tells the story of four children—Julie, Jack, Sue, and Tom—left on their own after the deaths of their parents. The story is narrated in the first person by Jack, who at fourteen is the second-to-youngest of the four children, and the oldest boy. The cement (which I suppose you can guess from the title of the book) is key—it’s not a metaphor, or else it is, but it’s also a physical reality in the book. At the beginning of the book, the father has bought the cement to cover his garden, which he is too sick to tend anymore. The garden was the father’s great hobby:
He had constructed rather than cultivated his garden according to plans he sometimes spread out on the kitchen table in the evenings while we peered over his shoulder. There were narrow flagstone paths which made elaborate curves to visit flower beds that were only a few feet away. One path spiraled up around a rockery as though it were a mountain pass…There was a lawn the size of a card table raised a couple of feet on a pile of rocks. Round the edge of the lawn there was just space for a single row of marigolds. He alone called it the hanging garden. In the very center of the hanging garden was a plaster statue of a dancing Pan. Here and there were sudden flights of steps, down, then up. There was a pond with a blue plastic bottom. Once he brought home two goldfish in a blue plastic bag. The birds ate them the same day. The paths were so narrow it was possible to lose your balance and fall into the flower beds. He chose flowers for their neatness and symmetry. He liked tulips best of all and planted them well apart. He did not like bushes or ivy or roses. He would have nothing that tangled. On either side of us the houses had been cleared and in summer the vacant sites grew lush with weeds and their flowers. Before his first heart-attack he had intended to build a high wall round his special world.
While covering the garden, the father drops dead of a heart-attack, face down in the cement. Not long after the father dies, the mother takes to her bed, and in a matter of months, she dies as well, from some unnamed illness. The children, unsure what to do, leave her in her room for a few days. They are afraid to tell anyone, for fear that they will be handed over to social services and the house will be left to rot, all their things stolen or smashed. They discuss burying her in the part of the yard not covered with cement, but they fear being seen, and finally it occurs to Jack to bury her in a trunk in the cellar using the leftover cement their father had procured to cover his garden.
After their mother’s death, their lives take a strange turn. I would say something like chaos ensues, but that is not entirely true. The school term has ended, and the children have nowhere to go. They have no relatives or family friends to speak of:
No one ever came to visit us. Neither my mother nor my father when he was alive had any real friends outside the family. They were both only children, and all my grandparents were dead. My mother had distant relatives in Ireland whom she had not seen since she was a child. Tom had a couple of friends he sometimes played with in the street, but we never let him bring then in the house. There was not even a milkman in our road now. As far as I could remember, the last people to visit the house had been the ambulance men who took my father away.
It seems like what we have here is a sort of reverse Eden. Adam and Eve have vanished. The world they have left behind for the children is not much to speak of: no family, no friends, and a house standing, literally, in the middle of nothing:
Our house had once stood in a street full of houses. Now it stood on empty land where stinging nettles grew around torn corrugated tin. The other houses were knocked down for a motorway they never built. Sometimes kids from the tower blocks came to play near our house, but usually they went up the road to the empty prefabs to kick the walls down and pick up what they could find. Once they set fire to one, and no one cared very much.
A hundred yards on, our road ran into another street. A few terraced houses remained. The rest, and all the houses in the next street across, had been cleared to make way for four twenty-story tower blocks. They stood on wide aprons of cracked asphalt where weeds were pushing through. They looked even older and sadder than our house. All down their concrete sides were colossal stains, almost black, caused by the rain. They never dried out.
Nature versus construction; garden versus cement; asphalt versus weeds. Man’s big plans clear things out and then fail and everything grows right back again. I keep going back to that sentence about the garden, and how the father had constructed it rather than cultivated it. What seems to be happening is that the artificial order that surrounded the lives of the children disintegrates as time passes. With no one to impose even the slightest sense of order, they fall into strange ways. For example, Tom, at six the youngest, has expressed his desire to dress like a girl. Jack vehemently opposes the idea, but he comes home one day to find that the girls have given Tom a wig and made him a dress. Tom begins to dress this way every day, even going out to play with his friend. Eventually, even Jack begins to think of it as normal.
Some of what happens is shocking, but most of it is banal. They stop cleaning the house; they cannot be bothered to make decent meals. They drift. Julie dates her boyfriend Derek; Sue stays in her room, reading and writing; Jack masturbates and re-reads a science fiction novel given to him by Sue for his birthday; Tom dresses as a girl and plays with his one friend in the neighborhood. Things go on like this until one day Derek comes to the house, and the…well, routine of their lives is interrupted. He has questions about what has happened to their mother, about why they are alone. The closer Derek comes to the truth, the more things start to unravel, and the stranger the relations between the children become. But the interesting thing to me about this book was this: as strange or shocking as things get, it only shows, as O’Connor’s good country neighbor said, what some people would do.
From the beginning, we know the kids had no real strong sense of family, no community. They live seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in view of civilization (or, at least, with civilization in their view), but not really connected to it, apart from it. Every social construction the children had has been removed or taken away: family, school, work. Even the way they relate to each other has shifted in perhaps unnatural but necessary ways.
The novel is short and tightly constructed. Looking back through it to write this post, I see how very dense it really is, how much more comes to the surface upon even this cursory second reading. Even though some people may have moral objections to some of the content here (frankly, brother-sister incest), what makes this such a good story is that McEwan has indeed shown us what some people would do, in the sense that really, for these children and who they are, the path they take is pretty much the only path available to them. Their actions, however strange or reprehensible, seem to follow directly from the story, and what McEwan shows us is that regular, “everyday” people are as strange and fascinating as anything in science fiction.
5 thoughts on “The Cement Garden”
What a great post. I read this book last year and, well, I’m not sure “enjoyed” is the right word, but I’m glad I read it. I was both fascinated and revolted (which, come to think of it, is exactly how I felt about Atonement too), and I think you’re right that the path the characters took was the only one available. There was quite an air of Greek tragedy about the story, I thought.
Freddie, fascinated and revolted is exactly right–from about page three! I have not read Atonement, but I have wanted to ever since I saw the movie. I was blown away by that ending, and would love to see how it worked in narrative form.
Funny you should mention the ending, because when I got to the last page of Atonement I BURST into tears. Not because it was sad, but just because of the emotional build-up and sudden release of all that tension. That’s not a typical reaction for me, and I was eager to read his other books after that. I also read Amsterdam, which was funny and snarky (as opposed to fascinating & revolting!), but nothing special. I was interested to read your review of Solar just now. I think I’ll skip that one, although I did like the quote at the end.
Freddie, what a reaction. Definitely the sign of a good book. The first half of Solar is actually not bad, and you know you are in the hands of a great writer all the way through the book, but to me it really does seem like…well, like he’s just joining the boys’ club. And don’t get me wrong, because Roth, Updike, and DeLillo have written some of my favorite books, but they were better than this, which just seems showy to me. I am also interested in Saturday and The Comfort of Strangers. Hopefully I’ll get to them this year.