There can be nothing but praise for how Ian McEwan writes: in his short stories (First Love, Last Rites, 1975) and in this new novella, he glories in the secret of how uninflected, almost unbearably lean, plain prose can grip, can scream without a single exclamation point. What McEwan writes is perhaps less cause for dancing in the streets. Here he returns to some of the adolescent preoccupations that peeked through the stories—masturbation, sibling sex—and, though all this is handled with impeccable taste and invested with authentic bitter-sweetness, one longs for adult material to match the fully matured style. Still, except for one aggressively Oedipal coincidence and an incestuous finale, The Cement Garden's adolescent sensibility works, on its own terms, quietly and stunningly. The Oedipal coincidence: acne-infested, broody narrator Jack, second oldest of four children, has his first ejaculation just as his frail father drops dead outside—father has been surrounding their English urban house with an even plane of concrete to cover the dirt and grass. With father gone and mother taking to her bed, the children—Jack, older Julie, younger Sue, little Tom—tussle for power, for each other's affection, and for attention from their mother, who has tired of doctors and one day quietly dies in bed. As in so many similar stories, the children fear being separated and so bury mother in the cellar, surrounding her with wet cement left over from father's weird concrete project. Now parentless, the house fills with debris and the children deteroriate: Julie attracts a pool-shark beau; Sue drifts off into reveries about mother; Tom wants to be a girl (his sisters approve and dress him up); Jack becomes obsessed with a science-fiction novel, a gutted nearby hi-rise, and masturbation. Only Jack and Julie's ultimate sexual coming-together—which, seen by the furious boyfriend, brings on the end of the children's closed-off world—seems staged for effect. And, most impressive of all, this grim little tale is somehow suffused with light and warmth. Having worked such wonders with such intrinsically stunted material, McEwan calls attention to his undeniable talent. If he and his characters can stretch to measure up to that prose, we may be watching a major novelist in the making.
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