The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan might be one of my most favorite of novels. It is short and well-written. The sentences are sharp and concise. There are lines that are so beautiful that you have to stop and re-read them. The characters are complicated. And there is incest between a brother and a sister, which always makes for wonderful reading.
I’ve had this discussion with a few people, and it makes perfect sense now as it did then. Any book that involves a level of incest is amazing. Nabokov’s Lolita is about an older man and a young girl. But, it could be about a father and his child, if you read it with that slate. Eugenides’s Middlesex is about the repercussions of incest, even when it is the obvious choice. Why is incest so provocative? Yes, it should make you recoil. Hopefully, some people reading these words are shaking their heads, saying no, no, no you are wrong, wrong, wrong.
That is what writing should do. Good writing, especially a novel, should present you with a disgusting situation and make you, force you to like it. Good writing should persuade you to see the other side of the argument, even briefly. When I was reading Lolita, there was the briefest of moments where I thought of a young girl as a sexual object, and I hated Nabokov for it.
The sex isn’t hidden or alluded to in the Cement Garden. You know what this novel is about. The main character, in the first few pages, masturbates while thinking of his two sisters playing doctor.
“I locked myself in the bathroom and sat on the edge of the bath with my pants round my ankles. I thought of Julie’s pale brown fingers between Sue’s legs as I brought myself to my quick, dry stab of pleasure. I remained doubled up after the spasm passed and became aware that downstairs the voices had long ceased.”
It is horribly uncomfortable. Is it uncommon? That’s the real question, isn’t it? Freud and his followers believe that we as human beings become uncomfortable when we see a truth, something that we know as true. We don’t want to face the truth, so we push it away or ignore it. The first time I read the book, I almost didn’t believe it. Surely, we don’t see ourselves like this. This young boy has mental and emotional problems that manifest themselves as ill-placed attraction to his siblings. Or is the narrator just a boy? How many boys are being like this boy, locked behind a bathroom door? How many people can read that paragraph and relate? How many keep that tragic secret?
The Cement Garden deals with other truths, as well. The family doesn’t care when the father dies. And when the mother dies, the children hide her in an obvious place, feeling the freedoms and fears of a parentless existence.
“When Mother died, beneath my strongest feelings was a sense of adventure and freedom which I hardly dared admit to myself and which was derived from the memory of that day years ago…there was no excitement now. The days were too long; it was too hot; the house seemed to have fallen asleep.”
Of course, the incest flares at this point, with out any governor limiting the interaction. The older sister even gets a boyfriend, so the narrator’s jealousy can be witnessed. Throughout the book, the author and the narrator feels the constant ping of guilt, the knowledge that the boy’s actions and feelings are wrong. But there is also pleasure that the actions and feelings are allowed room to breath.
Emotional manipulation and moral questioning. That is the strength of any good novel. Most stories try to get us to relate, try to show us something we have seen before. The epiphany is always, yes, that is the world. I’m glad someone sees that too. I prefer a novel that says, look, this is bad. And yes, we like it. We are the true monsters under our own beds. I like reading a book full of hurt people, touching the wounds and the blades that cut them. They are trying to figure things out. If a writer can create characters to do that, then I don’t have to do it. With all said, it is the places we shouldn’t go that makes for the best writing possible.