I’m gearing up for reading Atonement. I’ve written here before that after two attempts, I haven’t made it. But after a recent review of The Cement Garden on Savage Reads, I thought, this will be another opportunity to reaffirm my pleasure with McEwen and ready myself for Atonement.
Boy, did it. From an academic standpoint, I enjoy reading first novels. I can approach them with concession while still looking for the bread-crumbs of what is to come in future writing. In The Cement Garden (1978), McEwen demonstrates his remarkable ability to verbalize the inner thoughts that all of us have, but have never (dared to) put into words. His writing is candy for the brain.
The Cement Garden is about four siblings – Julie, Jack, Sue and Tom – who are left to fend for themselves after the death of both parents. Think if it as Lord of the Flies meets Perfume with a little Catcher in the Rye and Flowers in the Attic mixed in. It’s so full of symbolism, it is an English major’s dream when it comes to things to talk about. For starters, there’s the incestuous tension between Julie and Jack, Julie and Sue begin dressing Tom as a girl, and Jack quits bathing for a time.
Inside of these narrative lines are portraits of teenagers on the brink of adulthood trying to figure out what its like to be grown up. You’re given just enough of a glimpse with the father to understand the rigid, rule-based dictatorship that was their life with adults in it. The mother, on the other hand, is absentee. After the death of their father, she spirals into depression, eventually unable to get out of bed. She begins to hint to the children that she may have to go away for a time, which serves to prepare Jack and Julie for thinking about what might happen to the four of them without their parents. When the mother dies, they construct a plan that will allow them to live in adult-free bliss.
Many books are known for their first lines – this one should be recognized for its last. The Cement Garden is a short 160 pages, so it won’t take you long to get there.
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