Book Title:
The Cement Garden
Book Author:
Ian McEwan
Page Count:
Publishing Date:
January 13th, 1994
Date Read:
May 17th, 2022


First Father died, then Mother. Now the four children are left alone in a house that looks like a castle stranded among grim high-rises. Free of supervision, free of restraint, they can do anything. Be anything. As long as they keep the house's secret.

In this tour de force of psychological unease, Ian McEwan excavates the ruins of childhood and uncovers things that most adults have spent a lifetime forgetting - or denying. Out of blasphemous wishes and hair-raising games, he constructs a novel that is all the more chilling for its offhand approach to the unspeakable.

My Review

There is…a lot to unpack with The Cement Garden.

First of all, it’s my ideal book – incredibly dark and unsettling – a thriller that you won’t soon forget. It’s hard to find a thriller that truly unnerves me and shakes me to  my very core. The Cement Garden has done just that – it was certainly the kind of book I’m not sure to forget anytime soon.

Also, I feel it’s important to point out that The Cement Garden reminds me a lot of Flowers in the Attic. If you are familiar with that book, you know it deals with some difficult situations and dark themes, including incest. You will find a bit of that in The Cement Garden, as well – between Jack and Julie. Honestly, it was quite disturbing, and for a lot of people this will be a deal breaker for whether or not to read this book. While I did find it disturbing, it didn’t make me want to quit reading or anything, because it had a lot of other stuff going on in the book and I felt that it was only a minor story arc.

“Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s okay to be a boy; for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.”

The Cement Garden is told from the point of view of 15 year old Jack, one of four siblings living in a house together with their parents. After the father dies, the mother follows suit shortly after, leaving four children alone. Seventeen year old Julie places herself in charge, much to Jack’s dismay, but eventually he concedes and allows her to do as she wishes. The two of them are faced with a challenge: what should they do with their mother, now that she has died? If they alert authorities, they are likely to be separated and placed into foster care or an orphanage. Afterward, the house is likely to be torn down – both things that their mother did not want. So what would they do?

“At the back of my mind I had a sense of us sitting about waiting for some terrible event, and then I would remember that it had already happened.”

With neither of their parents alive, the four of them lack all supervision and are free to take care of themselves – although it doesn’t seem as though they are doing a very good job of it. Jack spends his time not bathing, Julie dates older men, and the younger siblings have their own problems.

Will Julie, Jack, Sue, and Tom be able to keep their devastating secret? Or will someone outside the family discover the secret that not only binds them together, but also drives them apart?

I had never read anything else by Ian McEwan. So this was my first foray into his writing style. I hadn’t even known this book existed until I was reading a Buzzfeed article on the most disturbing movies ever made, and The Cement Garden made an appearance on the list. I read that it was based on a book by the same name, so I looked it up and decided to give it a go.

I think the most disturbing part of this book was just…what the kids did and how fine they were with it. Like, as a mother, it’s pretty frightening to have read this book and seen how the children carried on after their parents died.

It’s also important to remember that this book was originally published in 1978. The times back then were quite a bit different than they are now, so the main characters acted way differently than they would in this day and age. Honestly, that was part of the allure with this novel – it was like I set foot in a time machine the entire time I was reading. I love when a book can transport me that way!

The character growth in this novel is just – not what I had hoped. I felt like most of the characters didn’t really improve or make themselves better as people. Not every novel has a great character development arc going on, and that’s fine. I just feel like maybe they should have improved a little bit from all they had to endure during the novel.

Would I recommend it? Yes, and no. Yes if this type of book is your thing. If you are bothered by death or incest (and those are some pretty big things to be bothered by), this book probably wouldn’t be for you. But if you like books like Flowers in the Attic and Lord of the Flies, this is a great read.

I’m not so sure I’d want to watch the movie, though.

4 stars
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One Response to The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

  1. Shane Long says:

    Well i think a collection of short stories by Ian McEwan, published in 2006. “The Cement Garden” was written as a series of linked stories that all revolved around the discovery of a secret garden in a former school, and the implications and consequences it posed for the lives of the people who inhabit it.

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