Whether these are the written transcripts of dreams or deadly accurate maps of the tremor zones of our psyche, all seven stories in this collection implicate us in the most fearful ways imaginable. In one, a two-timing pornographer becomes the unwilling object in the fantasies of one of his victims. In another, a jaded millionaire buys himself the perfect mistress and plunges into a hell of jealousy and despair. In another, over the course of a weekend, a guilt-ridden father with his teenage daughter discovers the depths of his own blundering innocence.
Ian McEwan is known to skirt the edge with his writing; the fringes of society, to test the limits of what we can handle perhaps in our worlds as we bring his writing home with us and allow a whole new being to enter. So it is with The Cement Garden, the story of dying family who live in a dying part of the city. The father of four children decides, in an effort to make his garden easier to control, to pave it over. In the process, he has a heart attack and dies, leaving the cement garden unfinished and the children to the care of their mother. Soon after, the mother too dies and the children, fearful of being separated by social services, decide to cover up their parents’ deaths: they bury their mother in the cement garden.
ll of the children are free thinking independent-minded teenagers. The story is told from the point of view of Jack, one of the sons, the narrator who is entering adolescence with all of its curiosity and appetites that he must contend with (along with the sure confusion of what the children have done). Julie, the eldest, is almost a grown woman. Sue is rather bookish and observes all that goes on around her. And Tom is the youngest and the baby of the lot.
The children seem to manage in this perverse setting rather well until Julie brings home a boyfriend who threatens their secret by asking too many questions (like what is buried beneath the cement pile, etc), surely threatening the status quo (however morbid) that the children have come to accept as "normal" and as "home". We understand through McEwan that home is not to be defined by anyone else but it is, instead, what you know and have known that makes you feel safe, even if it is rather dangerous and macabre.
Colin and Mary are lovers on holiday in Italy, their relationship becoming increasingly problematic as they become increasingly alienated from one and other. They move from place to place in this foreign land but seemingly without aim or purpose and more, seemingly bored and without attachment.
Then they meet a man named Robert and his wife, Caroline, who is crippled. Colin and Mary seem happy for the diversion--happy to meet another couple that takes the focus of off them (off of each other) for a while. Things become strange (and stranger yet; one could say horrific) when they attempt to leave: Robert and Caroline insist that they stay with them for a while longer.
While Mary and Colin indeed rediscover each other in ways during this time--an erotic attraction to each other that was below the surface--they also find that their relationship/friendship with Robert and Caroline takes turns that are likewise erotic and violent in nature. A pervasive dread runs through this novel, leading to the terrible climax that no reader could predict. Absolutely in the key of McEwan, without match in the genre, and a very worthwhile read.