The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan
There are some truly spectacular first novels. Catch 22 is an example of an extraordinary first novel – complete, perfectly formed and largely unassailed by the rest of Joseph Heller’s work in style, ability or notoriety. Powerful, witty and muscular it catapulted its title into common parlance and its author into fame.
But the first novel is the birthplace of an author’s fiction. Difficult, messy and a little embarrassing in places, the first novel rarely seems progress beyond the formative work selected it seems for its potential. The difficulty with which it enters the world is often reflected in its underpolished surfaces and its voluptuous innards.
Metroland is not so. A gentle if irreverent reflection on the progression into adulthood of the English schoolboy it is a carefully and delightfully observed narration of educated, sexualised British youth:
“‘Did you fancy her then?’
‘Fancy her? If it hadn’t been for you, I’d…’
‘…’ve scored five goals, three boundaries, two knock-outs, eight home runs and broken the marathon record while you were about it.’
‘Shot-putt.’ He pretended to juggle two monster breasts in his weighed-down palms.”
The book remains lithe beneath its pre, mid and post-adolescent subject matter, charting the friendship of Toni and Chris from beginning to near end. The tension between the arrival of Chris’ wife Marrion deftly picked out, the space between Chris and Toni opening up like branches growing away from a common trunk:
“But then you only had to look at us to see the way we are going. I had on a crew-neck sweater, corduroy trousers and Hush Puppies. Toni wore couture jeans, a denim waistcoat, an ingeniously rumpled shirt, and a sort of stalker’s anorak; his hair was lacquered by neglect.”
But these two English first novels of the 80s have in common a wanky, and slightly obnoxious teenage existence as though, by writing down, the authors have tunneled through an accumulated cloud of post-adolescent fantasy pushing through to clarity and respectability.
Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden takes an altogether darker journey through adolescence than Metroland. It electrified me when I read it as a teenager. Short, compelling, rife with incest and confession. It was impossible to put down, right up to its last appalling chapter. But what is immediately striking, reading Metroland over a decade later, is the place of these books and their authors alongside each other. Barnes and McEwan, born within two years of each other, both Man Booker Prize winners, both wrought their careers into life with these unguent depictions of the young male’s passage into adulthood.
Metroland is polished, erudite and forgiving. The Cement Garden is disgusting, amusing, compelling. It is a book in which the narrator appears to have wished to o’erleap his youth and escape into adulthood. As though, buried beneath all the material of the mind was a great weight of gold waiting to be uncovered and uncovered only by a great and cleansing fire.
“‘Yes, look at yourself,” she said in a softer voice. “You can’t get up in the mornings , you’re tired all day, you’re moody, you don’t wash yourself or change your clothes, you’re rude to your sisters and to me. And we both know why that is. Every time…” She trailed away and rather than look at me stared down at her hands in her lap. “Every time you do that it takes too pints of blood to replace it.” She looked at me defiantly.
“Blood.” I whispered quietly. She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek.”