If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Ian McEwan’s 1978 novel The Cement Garden, it’s not to underestimate the power of a great title: it can hold greater power than the entire contents of the story.
Browsing an independent book store in Camden, I had no real intention of buying anything: I had already bought three books that day. But tediously flicking through titles, running my fingers along the worn spines, the unusual and strikingly morose title caught my eye and made my heart skip a beat. There was no blurb on the back, just testimonials to the impressive nature of McEwan’s debut novel. But I didn’t need any convincing. The title had me sold, and a couple of hours later I was reading the first page on the tube.
The story itself is more of an extended short. It’s only 120 pages, and follows a boy called Jack and his siblings, Julie, Sue, and Tom. McEwan uses wonderfully grey imagery, with desolate landscapes, and an emphasis on decay, and carves in stone a horror of real life, shockingly vivid incest, and the importance of a child coming to terms with mortality.
The narrative has not been particularly developed, and I can’t say an awful lot happens. It starts where it should and ends in the right place, but when I finished, I wasn’t quite as blown over as when I’d bought it. I enjoyed the journey, and understood the intentions behind every action, but would have enjoyed it more if it had been a collection of short stories I could move on to. It was frustrating, too, because the ending was a good one. I just wanted a longer narrative.
As it’s so short, I can’t really tell you much of the plot in fear of giving anything away. But I would say this: I am excited about reading more of Ian McEwan’s work, considering the vivid descriptions and intelligently written characters. If the title interests you as much as it did me, then go ahead and give it a try. You just might find yourself sighing at the end. I know we’re supposed to be left wanting more, but how little is too little?
My rating: 3.5/5 stars.