The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan

I am not in general much of a re-reader. I think it’s because with so many new books out there each week I always feel like I might be missing out on something. Every now and again though one of my previous favourite reads will take my fancy or seem to be calling to me and Ian McEwan’s debut novel ‘The Cement Garden’ which was recommended when I asked on twitter for a shirt dark read that might take a hold of me during a mini reading funk (yes I have had one of those already in 2011, fortunately it seems to have passed) and though I had read it I thought it might be just the ticket and indeed it was.

‘The Cement Garden’ is only 144 pages but it’s a book that certainly packs a punch. After the death of their mother Julie (17), Jack (15),  Sue (13) and Tom (6) decide, with their father already dead, that rather than be separated and go into care they will cover up their mother’s death by encasing her in cement in the basement. If you are thinking that this is a grim start (and I haven’t given much away as that’s very near the beginning) thinks get darker as the book progresses. Soon Jack begins to take the role of head of the house to a new level and the siblings begin to become aware of their own sexuality, which leads them to look at each other in a whole new light, including Julie’s dating of Derek which threatens the whole dynamic and leads to a rather dramatic dénouement.

To say much more would be to ruin what can occasionally be a jaw dropping and shocking read. Having read it before I thought the effect might not be so great on me, I was wrong. I found the atmosphere and the things that were left unsaid even more ominous than the first time round and actually more uncomfortable than the events that happen as the book progresses. At the same time it’s a fascinating look into the psyche of teenagers and young adults as they grow and indeed how they cope with death and their own mortality, though of course most teenagers don’t bury their mother, start to experiment in cross dressing or with their own siblings.

Some people will no doubt find this book distasteful. I’m not really someone who thinks you should always be sitting comfortably with a book and after all this is fiction. It’s incredibly written, the writing being taught to create the same atmosphere, and is well told and constructed. It’s dark as well as occasionally, and you might find this odd, being sometimes rather melodramatically comic. Even though you might not like the characters or what they do you won’t be able to stop yourself from routing for them as the novel goes on. Or maybe that’s just me? It’s a book thats horrifically gripping and will stay with you for weeks afterwards. 9.5/10

I would recommend you give this a whirl, be you a fan of McEwan or not, even if you think it might make for a rather uncomfortable read. I personally would like to see McEwan go back to his darker roots with his next novel as when he does bleak he des it with brilliance.


Filed under Books of 2011, Ian McEwan, Vintage Books

24 responses to “The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan

  1. I can’t remember if I own this or not… I go back and forth with McEwan, loving some and loathing others. I think my favourite of the ones I’ve read is Black Dogs, so perhaps I should go back to more early McEwan?

    • I know a lot of people who have that love and loathe issue (maybe loathe is too strong) with differentMcEwan books. The only one I have floundered with, and still not managed to finish, is Saturday. One day though…

      I haven’t read Black Dogs yet, but I have it. I might turn to that one next on your recommendation.

  2. bev

    I read this quite some time ago. I’m not a big fan of McEwan however it is a very powerful, compelling and disturbing novella. Certainly well worth a read. My copy came free as part of a Guardian newspaper promotion otherwise it is something I would ordinarily not have considered.

  3. I read On Chesil Beach last year & loved it. This sounds like it might has some of the same psychological intensity that made me such a fan of OCB. You sold me; thanks for the intro!

    • On Chesil Beach is marvellous I have to concur with you fully on that one though I have known some people who were left completely cold by it. Let me know how you get on with this one if you give it a whirl!

  4. One to add to the wishlist. I’ve read a handful of McEwans and loved them all, and this one, so dark and fascinating, sounds right up my street!

  5. I’m not usually a fan of dark books, but I am usually a fan of McEwan. So I’m putting this at the top of the queue for the next time I’m in a dark funk and just want to stay in the mood. Nothing worse than reading something light and cheery when you really want to wallow in gloom and doom.

    • Interesting you say you don’t like dark but you do like Ian McEwan as I think they tend to go hand in hand a lot of the time.

      I know what you mean about needing a good wallow now and again.

  6. Ian McEwan is King of the short Novel (does that have an official word?) and writes so brilliantly about his characters. Although I loved ‘Atonement’ my praise for this author is based on ‘On Chesil Beach’ and ‘Amsterdam’. Two short novels that are such a fascinating and intense reads I cannot rave enough about them. Therefor, how, how, how, have I not read ‘The Cement Garden’? Off out first thing tomorrow to purchase it.

    • I was going to say novella but I am not sure his books are too long to be technically counted as a novella? I loved all three of those McEwan books, in Atonement I could just wallow in wallowing in him, if that makes sense?

      Have you read it yet? I am aware I am playing catch up on comments rather late, sorry.

  7. I really enjoyed The Cement Garden – very powerful and striking; the kind of book that is hard to shake off. Not sure it matches up to the haunting nature of Atonement but certainly one of McEwan’s more memorable novels.

    • I think Atonement and The Cement Garden are such different kettles of fish that you cant really compare them. First of all its the style, then the length and also the points in McEwans career – they are both brilliant though.

  8. bit like Kim I ve not read this read few of his others ,although was little let down by solar ,but this was his first so should be good ,great review simon ,all the best stu

    • Solar is a funny one, I liked it at the time simply because it was the new McEwan and I was excited about it. I can’t say its stayed with me or I would re-read it like I have and would again with this book.

  9. novelinsights

    I read this a while ago on your recommendation I think. It was certainly a dark read but a good-un.

  10. Reading about how people deal with death is of particular interest. I have made a note of this book – thanks for the review.

  11. The Cement Garden seems rather creepy, but a lot of readers really like this first taste of McEwan. I haven’t read very much by him and though I’m leaning more towards the more recent publications, I suspect reading his first novel would be a rather interesting experience, particularly based on this clear recommendation.

    • It is indeed rather creepy and a dark little novel, but thats what I love so much about it. His recent stuff is good, particularily Atonement and On Chesil Beach, I am waiting to see when he does something this dark again, or if he will.

  12. Pingback: First Love, Last Rites – Ian McEwan | Savidge Reads

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