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July 14, 2008 / Amy Bradney-George

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

There is something so compelling about exploring the human condition and looking at how certain people in certain social environments will react to any given stimuli. In the case of The Cement Garden, I found it fascinating to look at the workings of a close-knit, somewhat socially skewed family. The story follows the thoughts of Jack, a teenager struggling within his adolescence.

After his father’s death, Jack, his two sisters and younger brother live with their mother in an isolated development area. Jack is in the midst of struggling with a crush on his eldest sister when their mother is taken ill. And when she dies, the children panic, knowing the eldest, Julia, is too young to look after them, and fearing they would be separated. To avoid this destruction of their family, Jack and his two sisters decide to keep their mother’s death a secret, burying her in cement in their basement.

Before reading this I was familiar with some of the themes presented when my sister brought it up – she did a presentation on it and discussed how McEwan used the idea of “taboos”. Taboo is a significant element and some of the content is more shocking and confronting because of the way McEwan subverts social taboos. In particular the relationship between Jack and his eldest sister, Julie, is quite a disturbing constant throughout the book. Jack is fascinated by Julie, almost to the point of obsession, and for a lot of the book I was unsure of where Julie stood with the situation. The ending wasn’t entirely surprising, but it wasn’t something I expected or was familiar with either. But their relationship was as compelling to read about as it was confronting.

There is something engaging about the disturbing content of The Cement Garden which I haven’t often found in books. The thoughts and events are sometimes not conventional or even socially acceptable, but the combination of breaking down taboos and McEwan’s sharp writing engaged me in a way I didn’t expect. At times I would find myself cringing when I read of Jack admiring Julie during the long summer when most of the narrative takes place, but then, because the characters are so well drawn, I would question why I was cringing. Why are these things considered socially unacceptable, taboo, strange or disturbing? Who has imposed those values on society? And why do we often take them for granted, not even thinking about what would happen if a taboo was broken?

The Cement Garden was a confronting, thought-provoking read which left me with some speculative questions about socially constructed norms. The characters were real enough, and likeable enough that I empathised with their situations, and that in turn made the breaking of taboos more challenging to deal with. In the end, people may say we are a product of our society, and possibly most of us are, but there is a multitude of things which will affect the way we act, the way we think and the rules we break.

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