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Ian McEwan: The Cement Garden

This novel has, at times, been compared to Lord of Flies, as it is the story of a group of children left without adult supervision. However, at the time of publication, at least in England, it was compared to Julian Gloag’s Our Mother’s House (best known as a film, starring Dirk Bogarde), to which it has more than a superficial resemblance. McEwan was at the height of his wallowing-in-the-muck period when he wrote this and he certainly indulges. Incest and masturbation appear early on, as the story of a family – a father, who dies early on, a mother, two boys and two girls – unfolds. Mother soon dies, leaving the four children – as in Our Mother’s House – alone.

The rest of the book is how they cope. First, they bury her body, using the cement left over from the cement garden (their father had died while building it). Then they carry on life as before. The diet changes somewhat but soon they are functioning, more or less, normally. Tom, the youngest boy, who has expressed a wish to be a girl to avoid being bullied at school has his wish granted. Julie, the eldest girl, lets her boyfriend, Derek, in on the secret that their parents are dead (but not what they have done with the body). But eventually they start noticing a smell and they soon realize that the smell comes from their mother’s corpse, rotting in the cellar. The ending, if it can be called such, is a bit of a cop-out but the moral is that the family that buries their mother together, fucks together.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by Jonathan Cape