In retrospect, it’s fitting that I sat down to read Ian McEwan’s first novel, The Cement Garden, right around the holidays. This slim book from 1978 is all about family, a disturbing account of four young siblings left in a house by themselves during one hot summer. It’s almost in poor taste to watch these children explore the decaying world around them, the world inside the house left behind by their deceased parents, and each other’s bodies...but a young McEwan is so delicate with detail so as to almost turn the decidedly Gothic narrative into a twisted fairy tale.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
The four main characters of the book are Julie, 17, Jack, 14, Sue, 13, and Tom, 6. We spend all of our time in the narrator Jack’s head, though. And he’s a total creep who likes to follow his sisters around when they’re walking to school and sometimes makes off-hand remarks about his little brother’s “dinky.” Jack is at the dawn of adolescence, so he’s going through changes both physically and mentally — at one point, a clean shaven, proper boy; and at the next, dirty, hairy, and unwashed. And he also has feelings for his older sister Julie. It’s not enough to watch the boy squirm in his gross, adolescent cocoon, but we’re also with him as he spies on Julie while she sunbathes in their garden. Jack longs for her in secret. And there’s a fair amount of masturbation thrown in for good measure.
I don’t really believe in declaring a piece of fiction as being about one specific thing, but if you had to narrow The Cement Garden down to one subject, it would have to be incest — and a sexually-charged, concise examination of what happens when brother is in love with sister at that. The book reads like one long foreplay between the siblings, who are at most times mean to each other, in that way kids are when they like each other.
In the opening scene of the book, Jack and Julie play a game where Sue is laid on a bed, stripped of all her clothes, and examined as if she were a strange creature from outer space. It is uncomfortable to read, sure, but McEwan manages to weave into the scene a child-like fascination for sexuality. It’s like the kids don’t really know what they’re doing, but know they’ve stepped into a secret space:
Sue lay on the bed giggling with her knuckles in her mouth while Julie pushed a chair against the door. Together we rapidly stripped Sue of her clothes and when we were pulling down her pants our hands touched. Sue was rather thin. Her skin clung tightly to her rib cage and the hard muscular ridge of her buttocks strangely resembled her shoulder blades. Faint gingerish down grew between her legs. The game was that Julie and I were scientists examining a specimen from outer space. We spoke in clipped Germanic voices as we faced each other across the naked body. From downstairs came the tired, insistent drone of our mother’s voice. Julie had a high ridge of cheekbone beneath her eyes which gave her the deep look of some rare wild animal. In the electric light her eyes were black and big. The soft line of her mouth was just broken by two front teeth and she had to pout a little to conceal her smile. I longed to examine my older sister but the game did not allow for that.
There’s a strange love triangle that forms about halfway through, when Julie starts dating the annoyingly dapper Derek, who wants in on the siblings’ little secret — you know, dead mother buried in the basement. Julie doesn’t really like the guy, but is excited at the thought of having a gentleman caller. But he’s a bit pushy in his attempts to involve himself with the family. He wants to take care of the kids, but they don’t want him anywhere near the world they’ve built for themselves, one away from prying eyes. Derek proves to be the family’s downfall in the end, but not before Jack and Julie consummate their love...
I found the youngest sibling, Tom, to be the best part of the book. Poor little Tom is bullied at school and decides that the only way to protect himself is to become a girl. With the help of Julie and Sue, he dons a wig and a dress, and plays a secret game with a neighbor boy that we never quite see but get the sense that it must be homoerotic. Later in the novel, Tom reverts back to infancy, sleeping in a crib and begging to be coddled by Julie, who he’s turned into his new mummy. Tom is sleeping naked in the crib while Jack beds Julie in the final moments of the novel.
McEwan’s Freudian little novel shows us children slipping deeper into the dream they’ve created for themselves, and in their solidarity — to stay together and keep their dying home — uphold for one another. The novel ends quite fittingly with the characters pondering that dream, which is coming to a close, Tom waking up to the sound of the outside world coming in:
We talked about the birthday party at Mum’s bedside, and Julie’s handstand. We made her do it again. She kicked some clothes out of her way and threw herself up- side down in the air. Her dark, brown limbs barely quivered and when she was down Sue and I clapped quietly. It was the sound of two or three cars pulling up outside, the slam of doors and the hurried footsteps of several people coming up our front path that woke Tom. Through a chink in the curtain a revolving blue light made a spinning pattern on the wall. Tom sat up and stared at it, blinking. We crowded round the cot and Julie bent down and kissed him.
‘There!’ she said, ‘wasn’t that a lovely sleep.’