26 December 2010
The first chapter gets rid of Dad – sorry, Father – and by the end of Chapter 4, about a third of the way through, Mum’s copped it as well. It was Betsy Byars, an American writing novels for 10-12-year-olds, who once said that the most important thing in all her stories was to get rid of the adults as quickly as possible. William Golding gets rid of them before Chapter 1 of Lord of the Flies…. Clearly, in 1978 McEwan is only a beginner. And anyway, what kind of children’s book revolves around death, masturbation and fantasies of incest?
I thought I’d already read this book decades ago, but I was wrong. It’s interesting to read it now as a kind of historical relic. How old was McEwan? Had he only previously written the edgy, provocative short stories in First Love, Last Rites – and was it their success that encouraged him to write this edgy, provocative short novel? Certainly, we’re in a recognisable early incarnation of McEwan-land. We already know that the cement garden of the title doesn’t really refer to their father’s ugly creation: I think it’s on the first page that Jack, the narrator, feels the need to explain why they have so much unused cement, and by the end of the first chapter he knows how to mix it….
I’ve written elsewhere that what McEwan writes are mystery novels. Which means that by the time you’re a third of the way through you’re trying to guess which of the clues aren’t red herrings. Before their mother dies at the end of Chapter 4, she’s left the seed planted in their minds that Jack and his older sister need to take charge of the family if they don’t want to be put into care. So is hers the first body that’s going under the cement – you know, so the authorities won’t know she’s dead? And Jack’s much younger brother has got beaten up at school in the last week of the summer term, after Jack has threatened one of the bullies. More candidates for a garden plot?
What do I need to say about the horrible place that is the world of this novel? (Or the world of Jack’s mind, which might or might not be the same place?) A bitter, undermining father who is better off dead, for a start. He dies – an archetypal McEwan touch, this – when Jack leaves him struggling with a heavy load while he sorts himself out in the downstairs bathroom. (Jack’s life is full of these rather prim euphemisms – and these coincidences. There’s another one on the day when he first ejaculates, but I can’t remember what rite of passage that one marks.) As soon as her husband is out of the way, the downtrodden mother becomes mysteriously tired, then mysteriously ill, then dead herself. The pubescent narrator is out of a warped pattern-book of troubled adolescence, with his awareness – aided and abetted by his older sister, if he’s to be believed – of his younger sister’s prepubescent sexuality, his older sister’s desirability and his own twice-daily need to bring himself to orgasm.
If he’s a ghastly pastiche of an awkward 15-year-old – and I haven’t even mentioned the pimples and defiant rejection of personal hygiene – the family unit is another ghastly pastiche of a very particular kind. Jack’s birthday party, a family group around their mother’s sick-bed, is the first and last time we’ve seen the children coming together as any kind of functioning unit. Long before this we know all about the parents and their dysfunctional marriage, and the beginnings of sexual exploration among the three oldest siblings. (Tom is young enough to seem like an afterthought). There’s no extended family, because McEwan has made each of their parents an only child, and there are no neighbours because he’s stranded the house in a wasteland following the clearance of all those surrounding it for a motorway that never got built. There’s school, though, isn’t there? Nope: the summer holidays have just started. Like the writer of one species of whodunnit, he needs his characters to be cut off.
So he’s wound up the mechanism and he’s set it going. Things were strange when the parents were alive, so what are they going to be like now? And what is Jack going to do with that sledgehammer he’s found, now that his older sister has stopped him smashing up their father’s concrete with it? Time to read on.
30. That’s how old he was. And yes, only First Love, Last Rites came before this, with In Between the Sheets also being published in 1978.
Nothing’s happened with the sledgehammer yet – but the concrete covering their mother is starting to crack, so they’ll have to do something about it soon. Add another layer? Or smash it up and start again? She gets concreted over in Chapter 5, but in the cellar rather than the garden. Sensible, y’see: they couldn’t bury her outside in full view of the tower blocks I forgot to mention – not close, but close enough for their residents to witness an illicit interment – and if you have a cellar with a big metal chest in it, well, it would be silly not to use it. You can’t accuse McEwan of not keeping strictly within the logical parameters he’s set up.
Something else I forgot to mention was the two girls’ response to little Tom’s wish that he could be a girl – you know, because girls don’t get hit all the time like boys. They think, why not? But it’s only in the second half of the book, during the long, hot days of the summer holiday, that they go about getting him girls’ clothes and a wig. Jack is highly dissatisfied with this development, but by now he’s realised he doesn’t have the clout with them – especially Julie, the older sister – that he had hoped for.
The long, hot summer. You can imagine McEwan thinking through what three teenage kids would do with an empty house, a Post Office account with money in it, and a little brother. They live like slobs. They clean up. They bicker. They make up. I worry for Tom, often awkward and in the way like one one of the littluns in Lord of the Flies. He’s survived so far, and the summer isn’t going to go on for ever.
Nor is this novel. With only a few chapters to go, McEwan adds an ingredient: the interloper. (Sorry to sound so smart-arse about it, but his arrival did strike me as a bit formulaic.) Derek, Julie’s new boyfriend, is as implausible a character as the crook with mental health problems in Saturday, all those decades later: flash car, flash clothes – pro snooker player. Sure. He has a row with Julie, and suddenly McEwan decides to whisk Jack away from the claustrophobic house for an hour or so: Derek takes Jack to the snooker hall to pump him about the set-up in the house. What’s going on? Why is Julie so touchy about the cellar…? To me, this whole episode seems a mistake, as though the rookie novelist decides that what he needs to do is open things out a bit. It just bolts something else on to a story that’s already becoming a bit baggy.
Anything else? Erm…. Jack has dreams that morph into nightmares about his mother. No surprise there, then. Susan, the second sister, keeps a diary in which – as she’s told Jack, because he’s asked her – she’s frank about his appalling behaviour and habits. Jack has wistfully thought about how nice it would be if he and Susan were man and wife, and he’s reminded her of their old doctor-patient game. She doesn’t want to remember. Jack, soon after their mother’s death, tells Tom’s friend that his mother is dead as well – as though he can make things so by pretending they are. Has a bit of a problem with reality, Jack – and it’s his story we’re reading…. How much of it is true? (All of it, I’d guess.)
Chapter 9 – to the end
I’ll come clean. I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy this book, and after the first four chapters I thought I knew where it was all going – basically, in the direction of a Stephen King story. It had a lot of the ingredients, and it didn’t seem a particularly big step in my mind from burying your mother’s body – ok, that didn’t happen until Chapter 5, but it was obvious that it was going to – to getting rid of the infant-school bullies or, a bit later, the boyfriend and his awkward questions. Wonder of wonders, it turns out that McEwan is more interested in psychology than sensation – and the final message is, essentially, that these are fairly ordinary kids trying to cope with the extraordinary. I still think the middle section is a problem, when a lot of the claustrophobic inwardness of the early chapters is lost. I think it’s down to McEwan having trouble with the novel’s length, and that he errs on the side of too long…. But by the end the sheer neediness of this bereaved family is palpable.
So, what does happen? Essentially, they go as far as they can in their uncertain efforts to recreate a normal family environment. Tom misses his mother, and his sisters encourage him to become more and more babyish. Julie even moves the old cot into her bedroom. Since their mother’s death Julie has tried, diffidently and mostly unsuccessfully, to take charge of running the house, leaving Jack floundering. His dirty protest gets him nowhere, and the arrival of the interloper simply fills him with rage that we recognise as jealousy before he does. Susan reinforces the battle-lines, siding with Julie and Derek – until his questions about the cracking concrete in the cellar, and the smells emanating from it, become too pressing.
Derek is ousted from the family circle in the final chapter’s set-piece scene. Jack has cleaned up his act and when Julie finds him naked in her bedroom she isn’t taken aback. McEwan has set up their history of uncertain incestuous tendencies for this moment: by the time they are naked beside one another on the bed, and by the time Jack has found that his penis has somehow entered her, well, we can see how it must seem as natural to them as it does to hesitant, inexperienced newly-weds. (I won’t make any comment about their success compared to that of the newly-weds in On Chesil Beach, nearly three decades later.) Enter, but not in the same sense at all, Derek.
If there had been any sense of the incestuous coupling being anything other than depraved, Derek’s appearance at the door turns on to it a blinding floodlight of conventional normality. It’s over. But not until the rhythm of the comfortable movements on the bed is overshadowed by the regular thud of something else in the house. It’s that sledgehammer at last, obviously being wielded by Derek to check that the children’s preposterous story of a buried dog is really what he thinks it is. Cue car starting and leaving, arrival of more cars, blue lights. The end.
Except it isn’t. Before the police arrive, the children return to the moment before things went quite so awry. They remember that birthday party in their mother’s sick-room, and Julie does her party-piece handstand again, looking tanned and perfect now. And when the blue lights wake up the baby that Tom has become, it’s Julie who has the last word. As soon as we read it we know it’s not only referring to him on that afternoon: ‘There… wasn’t that a lovely sleep?’
Time to wake up now – but it isn’t McEwan’s job to tell us about that.