Introduction

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McEwan, Ian 1948–

McEwan is a British short story writer and novelist. He is a black humorist whose fiction is characterized by a unique blending of macabre plots, grotesque characters, and a lucid, almost pristine, prose style. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Jonathan Raban

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First Love, Last Rites oozes with talent as wayward, original and firm in vision as anything since [Jean] Rhys's early novels about being alone and young in Paris and London.

McEwan's characters are adolescents; they bristle with the sudden violent consciousness of selfhood like hatching pupae. Or they are children, prematurely burdened with egos that give them the wizened gravity of infants in Renaissance paintings. Or they are men whose bodies have grown but whose minds have never broken free of the appalling second womb of puberty. Cruelty comes easily to them: they can wound or kill with the offhand grace of animals for whom the self is the only reality. They are profoundly disturbed by their own capacity to love another, which creeps up on them from behind like a pad-footed intruder on their barred and bolted rooms. They are endlessly curious about the world, but their curiosity has the roving neutrality of creatures in a zoo, unsure of what to focus on. They belong to no society. They are alarmingly in touch with blood and slime. (p. 81)

[The] great strength of McEwan's writing is that it is constitutionally incapable of being appalled. Taking nothing for granted, it is surprised by nothing and observant of everything. His style is wonderfully supple, open to experience, and certain in its movements. At its frequent best, it has a musical purity matched to music's deep indifference to the merely moral. McEwan's narrators are—in the world's terms—an unsavoury crew … child-murderers, emotional cripples, brutally self-centred teenagers. Most of his characters are amply qualified for permanent residence in a prison or asylum. Yet they are all granted a Mozartian lucidity, a gift of clarity which turns them into angels despite the weight of the world's disapproval.

[In "Solid Geometry"] a man discovers how to make his wife disappear. Following a sequence of diagrams in his great-grandfather's diary, he persuades her that he has found a new love-making position, then folds up her naked body, turns the shape inside out, and she's gone. Just on the level of anecdote—the only level that most science fiction ever aspires to—the story is satisfyingly ingenious. What lifts it way above science fiction is the tone of the narration and its steady movement from inquisitive scientific cool to the wonder and joy of the experimenter at the moment of discovery. Yet Maisie, the wife, is such a thoroughly explored and observed character in her own right that the story has to win her disappearance by enlisting the reader as an accomplice to an outrageous act. It does so brilliantly, and in the process it teaches a dark truth about the abundant innocence of what is usually called evil.

McEwan does pay occasional penalties for being so confidently sui genèris. Idiomatic writers are able to rely on the established standards of their idioms, but McEwan (and he shares this with Jean Rhys, too) sometimes lurches, apparently unconsciously, into stretches of bathos and carelessness…. But these are niggles. First Love, Last Rites is one of those rare books which strike out on a new direction in current English fiction. The most important question is what will McEwan do next? His abilities as a stylist and a storyteller are profuse, and these stories are only the first harvest. (p. 82)

Jonathan Raban, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), June, 1975.

John Mellors

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In the black humour of McEwan's stories [in First Love, Last Rites] sometimes the blackness predominates, sometimes the humour. He can even be blackly Rabelaisian…. Always he is inventive, stylish and keenly observant of grotesque detail. He drives his plots logically to the most absurd or violent but, from his premises, inevitable ends. A brilliant and devastating début. (pp. 112-13)

John Mellors, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1975), August/September, 1975.

It is likely that McEwan will be compared to other practitioners of the short story form, Roald Dahl in particular. There is about [First Love, Last Rites] the same juxtaposing of simple quirks and complex pathologies, and the same blurry distinctions between the normal and abnormal behavior of seemingly sane individuals that Dahl mastered in "Kiss Kiss" and "Someone Like You" a decade or so ago. At the same time, the comparison is perhaps unfair. McEwan is no mere emulator of the style of others as "Solid Geometry," perhaps the quintessential example of the genre, and contained herein, readily demonstrates. (p. cxlii)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1975, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 51, No. 4 (Autumn, 1975).

Anne Tyler

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["The Cement Garden"] is really a kind of extended dream, although there's nothing dreamy about the precision and clarity of the writing. Its narrator, Jack, is a 15-year-old English boy so sunk in self-loathing that there are long stretches when he can't even be bothered to bathe or brush his teeth. Jack's father is a crabbed, oppressive man …; his mother is not much more than a shadow, and their neighborhood is a wasteland of abandoned prefabs. Life here seems smothered, flattened. For Jack, his two sisters and his little brother, the only pleasures are those that erupt beneath a rigid surface: some rather joyless sexual games and a few stolen moments of willful disobedience.

"The Cement Garden" describes the process that steadily isolates these four children, until they're so absolutely alone and so at odds with the rest of the world that there is no way of returning to normal life. First their father dies, and then their mother. The loss of their mother leaves them without relatives; so to avoid being separated they keep her death a secret and bury her in a trunkful of wet cement in the basement. From then on, it's all regression and decay. (p. 11)

In one sense, this is an easy novel to read. The story skims along, and the style is so direct that we have no trouble accepting the fact that it's a 15-year-old speaking. Jack is articulate but never precious; he succeeds all too well in letting us into his numbed, frozen world. "Except for the times I go down into the cellar," he says, "I feel like I'm asleep. Whole weeks go by without me noticing, and if you asked me what happened three days ago I wouldn't be able to tell you."…

But what makes the book difficult is that these children are not—we trust—real people at all. They are so consistently unpleasant, unlikable and bitter that we can't believe in them (even hardened criminals, after all, have some good points) and we certainly can't identify with them. Jack's eyes, through which we're viewing this story, have an uncanny ability to settle upon the one distasteful detail in every scene, and to dwell on it, and to allow only that detail to pierce the cotton wool that insulates him…. [This] is not the first book in which a pack of determined children bury their mother in secret, but it's almost certainly the first to cover, with such meticulous care, the putrefaction of her body. Nor is their reason for the burial a positive one; it's not love or loyalty that holds them together, but a hostility toward the rest of the world. Generally they're callous with one another, if not downright cruel.

It seems weak-stomached to criticize a novel on these grounds, but if what we read makes us avert our gaze entirely, isn't the purpose defeated? Jack, we're being told, has been so damaged and crippled that there's no hope for him. But if it's a foregone conclusion that there's no hope whatsoever, we tend to lose hope in the book as well. (pp. 11, 92)

Ian McEwan is a skillful writer, absolutely in control of his material, but in this first novel, at least, he could use a little more gleam. (p. 92)

Anne Tyler, "Damaged People," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 26, 1978, pp. 11, 92.

Tom Paulin

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Privacy is one of the imaginative poles of a story [The Cement Garden] whose ambiguities tease and fascinate me the more I reflect on it. McEwan's imagination moves between extremes of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, and he offers a series of charged phrases, images and atmospheres which give his story a mythic direction. Both domestic privacy and its opposite—society—are present in the young narrator's observation "I did not wish to be placed outside this intense community of work." They are present again in his father's wish to build "a high wall round his special world" in order to shield his garden from an urban landscape of demolished houses and "vacant sites … lush with weeds and their flowers." Some of the images have an extraordinary power: the derelict cement garden, the gardens of the abandoned prefabs, the fine black dust that blows "from the direction of the tower blocks", and the shovel lying in the centre of a round stain of dried cement "like the hour hand of a big broken clock." Jack thinks of all the "rooms that would one day collapse" and his description of this gutted prefab makes it resemble one of the "desolate places" in Job…. Obsessively, McEwan returns to images of dereliction, arbitrary living-spaces, family and the absence of family, guilt and its absence. In these burnt-out places there is no order—nature is dead, the city is dead, and the world is drained of meaning. What his fiction designs, I think, is a fable of a dead public world and an intensely private reality…. Using imagery drawn from the great waste places of the inner city he shows how the life of the emotions is like a weed flowering in a social desert.

In The Cement Garden we see a wish for an introverted independence cutting against a wish for dependence, a desire to live in a world without parents crossing a dream of a saving love. It's as though McEwan's imagination moves between images of public sterility and private sterility. He explores various tensions and strategies of meaning without offering a definite resolution…. (pp. 49-50)

McEwan has a strange notion of a sort of demonic or delinquent innocence which seeks to reflect itself in the blankness of a tabula rasa. It refuses experience and yet engages in sexual games that are part childish, part adult—the between state of early adolescence is his chosen territory. But what seems like a fixed state is in fact a stage in a natural process, and this is evident in the complicated situation at the end of the novel where Julie's boyfriend, Derek, is presented as an intruding stranger from the outside world. Julie says that he wants "to be one of the family … big smart daddy." In order to join the family he would have to share the guilty secret of the mother's grave in the cellar and turn his back on the outside world. This he refuses to do: he discovers the cement tomb and then fetches the police. To the children this seems like a betrayal. And yet the revolving blue light of the police car signals their difficult liberation into a world where a union may be possible between the public and private extremes which so occupy McEwan's imagination….

McEwan's novel is a superb achievement: his prose has an intent 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. (p. 50)

Tom Paulin, in Encounter (© 1979 by Encounter Ltd.), January, 1979.

Helen Harris

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The events which take place in Ian McEwan's first novel, The Cement Garden, are as apparently unnatural, though less gratuitously so, as in most of the stories in First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets. The ten tidy chapters are a chart of ugliness, death, rotting cadavers, incest and perversion. Most family taboos are briskly broken, but, on the part of the narrator at least, there is no relish. (p. 104)

It is the startling combination of everyday banality with the most horrendous acts that gives The Cement Garden its especial flavour.

As has been pointed out more than once, the plot bears a striking resemblance to that in a novel of the fifties by Julien Gloag—though McEwan claims not to have read it—and which was subsequently filmed, but the manner is rather different. The story is told in the first person by the elder boy, a sulkily resentful adolescent whose two conventional sisters seem to be growing up faster than he is…. [The] author maintains a passive stiffness, which is characterized by the grey cement of the title. No-one seems to react adequately in situations which amply provoke a reaction. Their world seems slightly anaesthetized, and it is the reader, whose emotions have not been dulled, who is most affected.

There is never much change inside The Cement Garden. Time passes. The climactic act of incest takes place. But the children twice describe their own situation as 'still and fixed'. At the end, their little brother is appropriately woken from a long sleep. Of course, there is development and dramatic irony, but, despite the grim secret in the cellar, the tension occasionally flags. This may be because the emotional deadness of the characters makes them impenetrable and the continuous physical details of their snot, pimples and masturbation tends to turn them into specimens, bodies rather than complete people.

The narrator appears detached, even though he participates. Once or twice, one is aware of a more sophisticated voice behind the teenage boy's; for instance, when he describes his dying mother's skin as 'dark and convoluted'. It might be a static, contrived world, with the characters under laboratory observation, but it remains a convincing one. The extraordinary distilled nastiness of the short stories cannot be as concentrated in a novel. However, McEwan knows instinctively how to disturb, without obvious effort, and his natural skill as a writer, if more patchily demonstrated in this novel, sustains the book. (pp. 104-05)

Helen Harris, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1979), February, 1979.

Robert Towers

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First Love, Last Rites [is] possibly the most brilliantly perverse and sinister batch of short stories to come out of England since Angus Wilson's The Wrong Set thirty years ago. Unlike Wilson, McEwan is not concerned with the teeth-baring of vicious little snobberies in an exhausted, class-ridden society; the England of his fiction is beyond all that—a flat, rubble-strewn wasteland, populated by freaks and reclusive monsters, most of them articulate enough to tell their own stories with mesmerizing narrative power and an unfaltering instinct for the perfect sickening detail…. With the exception of one piece ("Solid Geometry"), [the stories] are not really classifiable as examples of latter-day gothic; if nightmares, they are well-lit, waking nightmares, for there is nothing imprecise about them, no dislocations of time and space, no lapses in causality.

Much of the coloration and some of the preoccupations of First Love, Last Rites are to be found in [The Cement Garden]….

The Cement Garden is in many ways a shocking book, morbid, full of repellent imagery—and irresistibly readable. It is also the work of a writer in full control of his materials. As in the short stories, the effect achieved by McEwan's quiet, precise, and sensuous touch is that of magic realism—a transfiguration of the ordinary that has a far stronger retinal and visceral impact than the flabby surrealism of so many "experimental" novels. The setting and events reinforce one another symbolically, but the symbolism never seems contrived or obtrusive. Along with his narrative and descriptive powers, McEwan possesses what seems to me a remarkable imaginative insight into the psychology of children who have never experienced a fully loving adult presence and are now set free from even a vestige of adult control. Though their collective pathology and deprivation are indeed extreme, the four children are made to seem entirely credible—in their avoidances as well as in their speech and overt behavior. Nor have sympathy and implicit pity been withheld.

It will be interesting to see what this gifted craftsman can do if his demons ever allow him to extend his range—to include, occasionally, a functioning adult or an unmaimed child. Presumably McEwan writes as he must—and his readers, however they respond to his subject matter, can be thankful that he writes so memorably and well. (p. 8)

Robert Towers, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), March 8, 1979.

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