A while back I promised my take on Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden and A.S. Byatt's Possession, both of which I read over the Christmas break. It's taken me so long to get to those reviews for two reasons: One, The Cement Garden is one hell of a ballsy little book, and it required a little bit of distance from it for me to think about it clearly; and two, Possession made me wonder if I should even bother writing anymore. It scared the hell out of me. Then it made me want to crawl into bed with a bag of Double Stuffs and not come out till spring. But then school started again, and I was being threatened with lawsuits if I didn't come back to work, and so I quit feeling sorry for myself and had a shower. But I still can't quite manage to talk about Possession yet. Soon, maybe. But not yet.
First, The Cement Garden.
I came to The Cement Garden in reverse order from a lot of other readers: I read Atonement and Saturday first, and then, wanting more, went back to the novel that a lot of people told me was the best of McEwan's early work.
The story of a family of four children--two boys, two girls--who suddenly find themselves orphaned and alone in their down-at-the-heels suburban house, forgotten by distant relatives and ignored by neighbors, The Cement Garden tells of sibling power struggles, incest, and despair at its very best. Seriously. It takes a certain amount of courage to put the ugliest sides of human existence on display, especially when you know your family will likely read it, and all I can say is that McEwan must not have much family left, or he doesn't speak to them, or he's developed a very thick skin for the things they might say about his writing. That kind of bravely is rare and is to be applauded whenever you come across it, because it's hard to divorce yourself from that little critical voice telling you not to be an embarrassment to your family. Perhaps this is not as difficult for male writers as it is for female ones, since girls are taught to be nice, to play nice, to not rock the boat. But playing nice does not make great art. So well done, Ian. Well done.
The first-person narration is thrillngly told by Jack, the second-oldest child whose sexual interest in his older sister, Julie, is both natural and frightening--natural because Jack is young enough to look close to hand for objects of desire, and frightening because Julie does not discourage his interest.
For those of us who have grown up on McEwan's later novels, The Cement Garden feels like a change in style: Unlike McEwan's later narratives, minutely observed psychological dramas unfolding at an almost glacial but still-riveting pace, The Cement Garden is more conventional in its closeness and narrative speed. The first-person narrator is actually less self-reflective and obsessive in his style of narrating than the third-person narrators of McEwan's later books. Jack's age and self-involvement keep him from spending too long thinking about how his actions are impacting his family, though the narration is careful enough that the reader easily sees around his narcissism to the larger story.
When I was in grad school in Iowa, Ethan Canin used to insist that a good ending must be both surprising and inevitable. I won't spill the beans on The Cement Garden, but suffice to say it was both.
I will now be returning to McEwan's entire oeuvre and checking out the rest, including On Chesil Beach, Amsterdam, and Enduring Love, to see if they hold up.
Possession next, if I'm not in a fetal position.