“It was the late 70s. Everyone seemed focused on a sense that we were always at the end of things, that it was all collapsing. London was filthy, semi-functional. The phones didn’t work properly, the tube was a nightmare, but no one complained. It fed into a rather apocalyptic sense of things.” Ian McEwan, The Guardian, 26 January 2014.
“The farm is crucial. Stranded in such an isolated place, where there are only the natural rhythms of life and death, Grace and Billy are forced to discover their true selves.” Tom Darling, Writing.ie, 28 February 2012.
The Cement Garden
Ian McEwan (1978)
Tom Darling (2012)
*Warning: this article contains spoilers* (although I have tried not to give too much away).
I read these books within weeks of each other and was very struck by the similarities between them. In both novels, young siblings are suddenly left to fend for themselves, due to the loss of their parents. The resulting lack of adult guidance means that relationships quickly become distorted and physical circumstances disintegrate. You could say they turn feral; left to their own devices the main characters go into survival mode, with quite disturbing results.
The Cement Garden was written decades before Summer and I so I will discuss that first. The story is told from Jack’s point of view and opens with the line:
“I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way.”
This sense of suppressed guilt and self-disgust pervades Jack’s narrative, which makes for an unsettling read. There is also the sense that his narration may not be entirely reliable, distorted as it is by social isolation and Jack’s inability to relate to other people. In the absence of a mother and father, Jack and his eldest sister, Julie, take on a twisted version of parental roles. While his six year old brother, Tom, regresses to a state of babyhood. This is made all the more unsettling by Jack’s sexual interest in his sister and culminates in a very Freudian climax to the novel; a full on ‘Primal Scene’ in which ‘baby’ Tom witnesses their incestuous coupling. I’m sure some earnest student of English Literature must have written an essay on The Cement Garden and the Oedipus Complex – in light of the opening sentence, it’s just too tempting!
“It was always the view of my parents…that hot weather encouraged loose morals among young people.” Ian McEwan.
This takes us to another similarity between The Cement Garden and Summer – the heat. Both are set at the height of scorching hot summers. In both novels, this heat fuels sexual undercurrents and also precipitates physical decay. Flies feature in both novels as symbols of decomposition and agents of physical disgust. You could argue that the novels tap into a post-apocalyptic vibe; with death, decay and post-catastrophic disintegration coming through very strongly in the imagery and themes.
In The Cement Garden, the characters live in an urban wasteland, cut off from ‘normal’ society. While in Summer, the main protagonists are also isolated from the rest of the world by their physical location. Siblings Grace and Billy are sent to live on a failing farm which has no mobile phone signal and is miles from the nearest town. The resulting physical and emotional neglect means that Billy turns to killing animals with a pellet gun to pass the time and Grace turns inwards as she tries to cope with her grief. There are three points of view rather than a single narrator. The grandfather’s narrative tends to be shown in dream sequences; this provides us with his back story and also pinpoints the story in the aftermath of BSE. (This is a very personal view, but I hate dream sequences in novels, and find listening to other people’s dreams utterly tedious, this therefore made the grandfather’s story the least interesting part of the novel for me).
Nature, with its cycles of death and birth, provides the background to Grace and Billy’s story and is almost like another character in the novel; a malevolent and disturbing alternative to the pastoral idyll. Unlike, for example, Swallows and Amazons, where children are able to cope admirably in the great outdoors. In Summer, the natural world is something threatening and incomprehensible to the children. Billy kills so many pigeons that they need never go hungry, but instead he throws their bodies away and they descend into near starvation. This may be a comment on what happens in a society where we become so reliant on technology that we forget how to live off the land.
I enjoyed both books immensely and although I have drawn out similarities between them, I wouldn’t want you to think that one is a carbon copy of the other. Tom Darling’s style of writing is more emotionally engaging and the change in points of view makes for a very different reading experience to The Cement Garden. While Jack’s narration, in the hands of a writer of Ian McEwan’s calibre, is compelling, darkly humorous and psychologically insightful.
If you liked these books, you may also like:
The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks. (More social isolation – if you enjoyed the macabre feel of The Cement Garden, you may like this).
The Land of Decoration, Grace McLeen (Social isolation and bereavement dealt with in a more magical and whimsical way).