This is a dark short story about survival, compulsion, and an inevitably developing obsession. As the reader goes forward, an expectation develops of WHAT is going to happen. The artistry of the author is in the description of HOW the expectation is realized.
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
Seven characters move this story forward. Dad and Mom appear and disappear early in the story. Dad has a bit of obsession. He, Mom, and the kids live in a stark, fortress like stone building. This image complements the idea of “cement.” Dad is going to extend the solid image of the house by extending the amount of land covered by cement to create a “rock garden.” Despite a heart condition, Dad works hard. The main narrator, a son late in the story identified as Jack, helps Dad move and mix the cement for the garden construction. Jack is careful to not help too much. He wants Dad to overstress. Dad complies out of a sense of stubbornness, pride, and immortality. Wrong choice. Dad dies.
And Mom is happy that Dad is dead. She and the kids always cowered before the overbearing physical abusiveness of Dad. But Mom is physically, and possibly mentally, ill. From the time of Dad’s death, Mom’s existence is a story of steady decline and retreat into a drug filled existence in bed until she dies. Now the kids have to survive and overcome several problems on their own. How will they support themselves? Where will the money come from? How can the kids conceal the deaths of Mom, the remaining parent, and avoid a government engineered family split? And, just as an aside, what will the kids do with Mom’s body? It sure is lucky that Dad purchased all that cement.
Jack, Julie, and Susie create a cement sarcophagus for Mom in the cellar. It is imperfect and will eventually disintegrate to the point that a horrible smell will permeate the house leading to its discovery and disintegration by Derek, boyfriend of Julie. In a fit of jealous rage, he will share his discovery with police.
Why is Derek jealous? Jack, Susie, Julie, and Tom have always had a close relationship, protecting each other from Dad’s rages and supporting each other in necessary domestic roles when Mom could not get out of bed. From an early age there was sexual experimentation. It advanced predictably in a way that would feed Derek’s jealousy. There is even a sexual aside as Julie and Susie help Tom experiment with cross dressing.
This is a story of steady decline of a family. Their individual flaws play out in a setting of physical decline that can be distasteful to read. Moral decline occurs in tandem with physical filth. If a story that leads inevitably to incest disgusts you, avoid this one. However, the way the story is told is art. This is a fascinating, dark, tragic story.