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Primary data
Title: The Cement Garden
Author: Ian McEwan
Originally published: 1978
Publisher: Cape, London
Read edition: 1980 Pan Books, London
I chose The Cement Garden because the cover drew my attention. The cover shows two naked teenagers who are laying on top of each other but who are not in thoughts together. The Cement Garden describes a traumatised family. Both the parents have died and the children are trying to take care of themselves and each other. The children bury their mother under cement.
Theme: Orphan hood that leads to anarchy.
Motives: Puberty, death, sexuality, orphans, human nature and a family secret.
Genre: Psychological fiction
The author’s style is informal. There are some dialogues in the text but the overwhelming part is a monologue of the protagonist.
The title can be explained in different ways. The father loves gardening but becomes semi-invalid so he can’t work in the garden any more. He orders a great amount of cement to cover his garden. Another explanation is the grave of the mother. When the mother dies she gets buried in the cellar under a layer of cement. The cement keeps occurring throughout the story. The cement is cracked and later in the story Derek tries to fill the crack which raises the question what’s underneath the cement. The cement is a symbol for coldness. Cement is used to cover things. In the case of the book the thing that is covered, and needs to stay hidden, is the secret that the orphans carry.
The story takes place in the family’s house in an unnamed British city. The house is situated in a desolated neighbourhood. All the other houses in the street are abandoned or ruined because at that place a motorway will be constructed. The fact that the orphans live so isolated makes it possible that the story can develop so strongly and the orphans can live in such anarchy. The setting perfectly reflects the emptiness of the children’s lives. It also explains why the children can live in their own world.
There are no exact dates mentioned but the story starts when Jack is in his early fourteen and ends when he has reached the age of fifteen. The story takes place during the summer. The telling time is approximately six months. The story is chronologically told but it also contains a few flashbacks. For instance when Jack tells about his father and his death.
I-narrator with a subjective perspective. The story is described the way the narrator sees and experiences it. The narrator is the main character Jack.
The language focuses on a child (the I-narrator) and is therefore simple and easy to read. The author uses as few words as possible to describe something. This makes the text very powerful.
- Jack
Jack is the main character. He is a round character. Jack is in his puberty. Jack doesn’t like Derek, the boyfriend of his oldest sister Julie. Jack is exploring his sexuality and breaks many taboos. He masturbates often and plays with his sisters. Jack is jealous of Derek because he is in love with Julie. Initially Julie keeps Jack at a distance but at the end of the story this changes. When his mother dies Jack stops taking care of himself.
I masturbated each morning and afternoon, and drifted through the house, from one room to another, sometimes surprised to find myself in my bedroom, lying on my back staring at the ceiling, when I had intended to go out into the garden. I looked at myself carefully in the mirror. What was wrong with me? (chapter six, page 68)
- Julie
Julie is the oldest of the four children. She is a round character and a very beautiful girl. In the beginning Julie is putting al her effort in the housekeeping like her mother asked her when she was dying. Julie takes care of her brothers and sister, she feeds them and gives them money. She is of all the orphans mostly fulfilling the mother role. Things change when she meets Derek. From that moment she starts taking her responsibilities less serious and she starts smoking. Eventually Julie gets tired of Derek because he’s trying to be the man of the house and she ends out in bed with her brother Jack.
‘He wants to take charge of everything. He keeps talking about moving in with us.’ She squared her shoulders and puffed out her chest. “What you need is taking care of.” (chapter ten, page 123)
- Sue
Sue is the youngest daughter. She is twelve years old when the story starts. Sue keeps a diary from the moment her mother dies.
What are you writing?’ She sighed. ‘Nothing. just writing.’ I tore the book from her hands, turned my back on her and opened it. Before she blocked my view with her arm I had time to read at the top of a page, ‘Tuesday, Dear Mum’. (chapter six, page 66)
- Tom
Tom is the youngest child. Tom is six years old when the story starts. At school the children are bullying Tom. Tom suffers and wants to be a girl because “you don’t get hit when you’re a girl” (chapter four, page 43)
Tom was wearing Sue’s school uniform and his knees were bloody from a fall. Quite often now Tom played in the street in Sue’s skirt. None of the other children teased him like I thought they would. They did not even seem to notice. (chapter seven, page 79)
- Derek
Although Derek isn’t a family member he is trying hard to be a part of the family. Derek knows about the secret the orphans are hiding because Julie told him the truth. Her brothers and sister don’t know and keep on telling Derek that the smell comes from their dog whom they buried in the cellar. Derek pretends that he believes them. At the end of the story, when Derek enters the bedroom and sees his girlfriend intimately with her brother, Derek calls the police.
‘It’s sick,’ he said loudly, ‘he’s your brother.’ ‘Talk quietly Derek,’ Julie said firmly, ‘or you’ll wake Tom up.’ ‘Sick!’ Derek repeated, and the bedroom door slammed shut. (chapter ten, page 125)
McEwan, Ian. The Cement Garden. 1978 Cape, London. 1980 Pan Books, London.
The Cement Garden is a very pleasant book to read. The sense of atmosphere is well evoked. The book gives a full-length picture of the subject. I conceder this as a popular book. Many happenings occur and there is a good building of tension.
My biggest point of criticism on this book is that he story isn’t very realistic to my opinion. The children burry their mother because they are afraid that they will get torn apart. That’s the only point in which I can relate myself to the characters. Never the less I do appreciate this book and I would definitely recommend it to others.


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