Date finished: December 1st 2014
Authors often seem to be at their most shocking when they first spring onto the literary scene. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Stephen King’s Carrie, Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – all of these novels and more are both the author’s debut and, often their most loved work; and all of them are intensely disturbing. It seems that authors have nothing to lose when they write their debut.
In keeping with this theme, The Cement Garden was Ian McEwan’s first novel published in 1978, and it remains as shocking now as it was then.
The premise is simple, a family’s father died not so long ago, and now their mother is on her deathbed, dying of cancer. When she finally succumbs, they refuse to turn to any authority. Instead, they remain in the house looking after themselves and pretending that life can go on as normal, but it surely can’t and in this home without boundaries, they soon become a grotesque parody of a family.
McEwan’s strength is his prose. It’s comparable to that of fellow English post-war authors, John Fowles and Julian Barnes in that it gets under your skin. He possesses an incisive understanding of the human condition and his sentences can resonate with disturbing truth.
There’s no denying that The Cement Garden is a sick and twisted novel relying on the fact that its readers will compulsively follow McEwan’s provocative threads, but at times the action can feel repetitious. At times it feels too long and trudging which is somewhat harsh criticism of a novel that clocks in at little over a hundred pages.
Nevertheless, this is the debut from a then-fledgling author, and there’s huge potential within the pages for McEwan to hone his craft and become one of the foremost novelists of his era. The Cement Garden is a powerful book in its own right, but requires its reader to have a strong stomach and the will to overlook its flaws.