The Cement Garden (Anglais) Broché – 2 juin 2016
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Revue de presse
"An extremely assured, technically adept and compelling piece of work" (Observer)
"A superb achievement: his prose has instant, lucid beauty and his narrative voice has a perfect poise and certainty. His account of deprivation and survival is marvellously sure, and the imaginative alignment of his story is exactly right" (Tom Paulin)
"Marvellously creates the atmosphere of youngsters given that instant adulthood they all crave, where the ordinary takes on a mysterious glow and the extraordinary seems rather commonplace. It is difficult to fault the writing or the construction of this eerie fable" (Sunday Times)
"A shocking book, morbid, full of repellant imagery - and irresistibly readable...The effect achieved by McEwan's quiet, precise and sensuous touch is that of magic realism - a transfiguration of the ordinary that has far stronger retinal and visceral impact than the flabby surrealism of so many experimental novels" (New York Review of Books)
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Contrairement à Atonement qui tente d'expliquer pourquoi un enfant a agi d'une certaine façons, et les conséquences, The Cement Garden se contente de décrire les états d'âme et les gestes du narrateur, sans chercher de justification. C'est plus dérangeant comme lecture, surtout vers la fin quand les enfants sont vraiment livrés à eux-même. Ian McEwan réussi une fois de plus à rendre une atmosphère magnifiquement décrite, en phase avec ses personnages: un quasi huis-clos dans la maison et le jardin en ciment, l'été chaud et poussièreux qui n'en finit pas...
The big house with garden and spacious cellar stands alone in an area bulldozed flat to make way for a road that was never built. It houses a family of six, of which first the father, then the mother die. The children (16, 14, 12 and 5) are alone now and decide to bury Mother in concrete in an army sheet metal suitcase in the basement. The means: the remains of 15 bags of cement and a load of sand their late Father bought to realize his weird dream garden. The motive: they have no relatives and although rather prickly, even hostile, they do not fancy being cared for in foster families or orphanages.
What follows is pure drama, because each child reacts in his/her own way to the new reality. For Jack, now 15, time seems to stand still. He is the storyteller when he does not sleep or masturbate, and his lack of personal hygiene matches the kitchen's smelly state. Tom, now 6, goes back in time, wants to be a girl, then a baby with sister Julie, now 17 as his mother. Sue, now 13, starts and keeps a diary.
One day, Julie finally orders a housecleaning and introduces her siblings to Derek (23), a smart, rich snooker player. At the end of a suffocating summer which the quartet survived without a plan for the future, the taboo is finally broken and consumed to the sound and rhythm of Derek's sledgehammer from the cellar... Brr.
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The Cement Garden has been likened to Golding's Lord of the Flies for its careful evocation of a society of young people, suddenly relieved of adult oversight, that evolves rapidly, opportunistically, organically in response to specific challenges posed by an unusual environment. In McEwan's working of these materials, related in the flat, dispassionate voice of Jack, the 14-year-old narrator, the challenging environment is the solitary house in which Jack, his brother, and two sisters live, set in the midst of a desolate urban landscape cleared for a freeway that never gets built.
The book takes its name from the paved-over garden Jack's fussy, acerbic father, a heart patient, envisions as tidier as easier to maintain. The exertions of the project kill the father, to no one's apparent regret, in the first chapter, leaving a sizable inventory of cement behind. With the demise of their long ailing mother shortly thereafter, the orphaned children are forced to recreate the family unit. Fearful of the split-up of the family, foster care for little Tom, and other worrisome ministrations of an impersonal state, the children decide to tell no one of their mother's death and to entomb her in concrete in the basement.
Jack recounts these and other details, and the changes each child undergoes, in his matter-of-fact voice. McEwan charges his tale with an extraordinary measure of sexual tension, primarily between Jack - much more than the stereotypically acne-covered, pubescent, serially self-abusing "sullen teen" - and his beautiful, athletic older sister Julia, who assumes the maternal role of "Wendy" to the family's "lost children." The movement of the story is aided and abetted by Derek, Julia's "bloke," a professional snooker player, aking all the questions the nosey private eye in a Hitchcock picture usually asks. The dreaded resolution of the relentlessly rising tension, carefully withheld until the closing pages, relieves narrative pressure but raises disturbing perspectives on love, the family, the "ties that bind."
The Cement Garden renews, at least in my mind, the great question of what it is that prompts a lavishly gifted writer to explore so sensitively the wholly bizarre. Great writing generally works simultaneously at several levels and admits layers of meaning. McEwan writes about familiar characters who before our eyes become something very, very different. He begs us to inquire beneath the surface familiarity into worlds unseen by, or denied to, passing spectators. He compels us to ask ourselves "what is `normal'?" "What is `natural'?" His answers may unsettle, but they are are the product of a novelistic logic that, in its internal workings, is eminently reasonable.
The Cement Garden is assuredly not for every taste. More than once, I looked up from the page with an "ugh." McEwan's imagination teems with clambering spiders. But as an early example of McEwan's art and his project to redefine, or reinvent, the psychological horror story, this book is a worthy, if unsettling, read.
There's Julie, the eldest, a ripe & willful beauty who's almost a woman; there's Jack, the narrator, a boy bewildered by his growing body & appetites; there's Sue, bookish & ever-observant; and then there's Tom, the baby of the family, who actually seems to get younger, regressing as the days go by. These four form an uneasy family, slowly learning to be self-sufficient in this strangely apocalyptic setting.
But an intruder in the form of Julie's new boyfriend threatens their fragile stasis by asking too many questions. How long have the four of them been alone? And just what is buried under the crumbling pile of cement in the basement?
This book has been mistakenly marketed as a horror novel; it's horrific, sure, but not as horrible as the pulp that defines the genre. What makes it particularly good is its characters, the children who are both recognizably sympathetic and exotically extraordinary.
Ian McEwan has created a taut & provocative thriller written in pitch-perfect and stripped-down prose. Beyond being a macabre morality tale, The Cement Garden is a psychological-suspense yarn, a perceptive portrayal of adolescence that will keep you riveted up to the final, climactic scene in an upstairs bedroom.
Four children, who previously lost their father, now tend their ailing mother, whom they will soon lose as well. Two boys and two girls (two young and two teenaged), they attend school as normal, but the family has always been isolated. The mother hardly let them leave the house when she was alive, so they do not know how to handle her body now that she's died, and take it to the basement. As a subplot, the older boy and girl explore sexuality with each other, in a candid scene.
Suprisingly, we are not bothered by these activities as such. McEwan's psychological portraits are convincing, and his characters seem entirely normal. His writing skill is evident when one realizes the sympathy with which these four characters are drawn.
The novel's tension comes unexpectedly from a banal source: The older girl has a boyfriend, a conventional person, but McEwan has convinced us the family is normal, so to us, the boyfriend is an outsider. How will the boyfriend act? Will he discover the secret? If so, will he reveal it? Will he become an insider, will he clean up the mess and help the four become legitimate, will he blackmail them, or will he tell society and let them be punished as normal? If the latter, will society punish them harshly?
At the end, one wonders how horrible the youth really were, even if they lived outside social norms. What is the line between innocently mistaken and socially unacceptable? The novel is an excellent exploration of this question, and the inquisitive reader may judge this matter for themself.
A minor complaint: I have heard the movie omits the book's last paragraph, which I think was wise. The author might have witheld the explicit conclusion, forcing the reader to guess what might happen. This does not detract from the book's quality in any way, nor the reader's ability to consider the matter in their own mind, on their own.
The book was published in 1978 and, although there are no explicit period references, in many ways it reflects the mood of Britain in the late seventies. That was a time of economic recession, of industrial unrest, of unemployment, of concern about declining public services and the condition of the inner cities. (The period also saw some of the hottest summers of recent decades). The weak minority government of Prime Minister James Callaghan was widely perceived as being unable or unwilling to do anything about the country's problems. The era also saw a growing sense of youthful rebelliousness and resentment of adult authority which found its most extreme expression in the punk movement. Although a generation gap was not a new phenomenon, the mood of the young in the seventies was quite different to that of their older brothers and sisters in the sixties. Youthful rebellion in the hippy era often took the form of altruistic idealism, and even in its hedonistic forms tended to be joyous and optimistic. The rebellion of the young in the seventies, by contrast, tended to be more sour and resentful, characterised by a cynical pessimism.
The setting of the book is a bleak, impoverished district of an unnamed British inner city. The children's house is one of the few remaining in an area marked out for redevelopment, and is surrounded either by soulless tower blocks or by derelict, rubble-strewn wasteland. Their garden, one of the few islands of green in the area, has been concreted over by their father (hence the title of the book). A dustmen's' strike means that refuse is not being collected. There is a pervasive atmosphere of stifling heat and noxious odours. The children- Jack in particular- are cynical, apathetic and suspicious of the adult world in all its forms. Their independent life together has few positive attractions- its main features are boredom, squalor and quarrels- but they prefer it to the alternative of submitting to adult authority. The incestuous relationship between Jack and Julie can be seen as both the ultimate expression of family solidarity and as a conscious rejection of the taboos and conventions of the adult world.
A word that has been used by other reviewers about this book is "gothic". With two qualifications, that is a useful categorisation. The first qualification is that the so-called "gothic" movement in literature, a literature obsessed with death, darkness, gloom and despair, has very little connection with Gothic architecture, an architecture that celebrates life, light, colour and faith. The second qualification is that McEwan's work represents a modern development of the "gothic" tradition; he has abandoned the supernatural elements and exotic settings beloved of Georgian and Victorian gothic authors, but has retained their fascination with death, decay and the macabre and their emphasis on the darker side of human nature, including human sexuality, which can be treated with a greater freedom than was possible for earlier writers. (Besides the incest of Jack and Julie, Tom, the youngest child, who loves to dress as a girl, is presented as a budding transvestite).
McEwan's prose in this work is deliberately simple- the sentences are short, with few dependent clauses, and mostly describe concrete actions with little room for speculation or analysis of thoughts and feelings. (This is not surprising, given that it is narrated by a young boy of both limited education and limited experience). Despite the terseness of the prose and the desolate urban setting, however, this is not a work of social realism. If one tries to read it as realistic fiction, a number of details do not ring true. (Would the disappearance of the children's mother, for example, really have gone unnoticed by the outside world for so long, especially as she had been receiving medical treatment for her illness and had even arranged to go into hospital?) If, however, one reads it as a work of grim fantasy, it can be seen as an accomplished and powerful piece of work. The combination of matter-of-fact narration and bleak modern setting with macabre horror and bizarre happenings gives the work an eerie, hallucinatory quality; not so much a midsummer night's dream as a midsummer nightmare.