The Cement Garden was Ian McEwan’s first published novel. I became aware of him as a student, when I used to haunt the now-gone Paperback Shop in Broad Street, Oxford. In those days, I didn’t have much cash to buy fiction, but I did buy a copy of his debut book of short stories, partly as I was overawed by the fact that a writer who wasn’t so much older than me had so quickly established himself as a stellar talent. I was impressed by his writing then, and I still am.
Yet I’ve never read The Cement Garden, and my belated encounter with it has been through the film version made in 1993. The director was Andrew Birkin, brother of the legendary Jane, and the young boy is his son, Ned Birkin, while the female lead is Jane’s daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg. A family affair, then, very much in keeping with the dark story-line about death and incest.
I can’t claim that The Cement Garden is a bundle of laughs, and it isn’t really a crime story, although a crime is committed. In essence, it’s a study in family relationships, with echoes of The Lord of the Flies. When the widowed mother of four children die, they encase her body in cement to avoid the risk that the younger siblings will be taken into care. And the relationship between the teenage boy and girl becomes increasingly intimate.
I thought this was, despite its forbidding subject matter, a gripping film, and the performances of the four young people were excellent. This story is a good example of how the depiction of evolving relationships can be compelling, and can create plenty of tension, even when there is relatively little dramatic action. A crime novel needs a reasonable amount of drama, but watching The Cement Garden reminded me that sometimes less is more.