Friday, December 14, 2007

Books: The Cement Garden, by Ian McEwan

This is the first Ian McEwan I've read, and I read it not because his "Now a Major Motion Picture!" Atonement was waitlisted at the library (which I imagine it is), but because I am a massive fan of Todd McEwen, who is in no way related to Ian McEwan, except in people's confused minds (mine included, at first). I needed to be able to differentiate between the two, and while I was accustomed to saying that Todd McX was the superior man, I had to acknowledge that until I read something from this other famed McHominym, I was talking out of my ass. And The Cement Garden, while nothing like McEwen's gut-busting intellectual romps, quite delighted me anyway.

The writing is limpid and nostalgic and sensual rather than frenetic and intellectual and multivalent. In describing the plot to a friend, I was interrupted by his brilliant synopsis: "So, it's a cross between Lolita and Lord of the Flies?" Indeed. Focalized through an adolescent male narrator with social troubles enough between acne, masturbation, and the the haughty thumb of his teenage sister, the story slips from inviting to disturbing to (delightfully) horrifying. The reader, however, swept along in the natural stream of narration, finds nothing unnatural in the behavior of these four siblings, whose actions make perfect sense, given their options upon the domino death of their parents. (After their father dies, the four children, ranging from six to sixteen, two girls and two boys, learn to take well enough care of themselves when their mother falls ill and takes permanently to her bed. When she dies, rather than tell anyone and risk being split into different adoptive homes, they drag her body into the basement and bury it in a chest of wet cement, hoping to lock away the secret forever).

Despite the filth that accumulates in the kitchen (no parents, no chores) and the general aimlessness of the siblings (it's summer vacation, and no one plans on going back to school in the fall), things go fairly well. The youngest boy, who has trouble with bullies and seems somehow malsocialized, requests to become a girl, and his sisters, sewing some old dresses to his size, appease him, wig and all. The oldest sister, playing at being grown up, finds herself a boyfriend—at first a mystery provider of expensive new boots and clothing, but soon a regular visitor to the house who wants to be let in on its secret. A sweet, sick smell emanates from the basement; the gasses of the decomposing body under pressure have cracked the cement, and, told that the encased corpse is that of a dead dog, the boyfriend willingly (and knowingly) patches the crack. His frustration at not being trusted with the secret's truth begins to mount as intensely as the smell, and he bursts into the house one evening only to see his rage became truly explosive: our narrator and his older sister, whom he has so loved and hated and desired, lie together on their mother's bed, taking each other's virginity, while the youngest, playing at being a baby, lies aside them, watching. Sick, twisted, lovely, and punctuated by the sound of sirens (while his girlfriend copulates with her brother, the boyfriend's jealousy manifests itself in a call to the police), the novel ends there.

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