The Cement Garden: Imitation or Isolation?

                          

Ian McEwen’s first novel, The Cement Garden, shares the suffocating claustrophobia of DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and the same preoccupation with the weird intimacy of familial love. Is it unfair to compare and collapse novels in this way? To see such parallels that it becomes difficult to separate plot? (What are the other doppleganger novels?) If the author self-consciously evokes a predecessor is that more excusable than the author who (seemingly) accidentally replicates the themes and questions of an existing work? I’m not demanding the invention of new stories or themes – far from it, I think there is a decidedly short list of topics and questions in literature – rather the mirroring of mood, tone, point of view, theme and abstracted-plot, do provoke questions about the expectation for the ‘new’ when we read, and whether this is a fair or desirable thing.

Proviso! This parallelism may very likely be an exaggeration of my part. I could write a persuasive essay on the similarities, but I suspect that in the conclusion of that essay I’d be pointing too often to “mood” or “atmosphere” rather than plot or character – and replicating a “mood” hardly feels like a justifiable case for inquiring about the boundaries of originality.

No surprise then that I’ll commend The Cement Garden for outstanding development of an oppressive – dare I say “fixed in stone”? – atmosphere. The characters each evolve over the course of the novel, but only within the extreme confines of both their setting and psychology. The narrative only leaves the house on one, brief, occasion, and that journey precipitates the crises that undoes the fragile – and perverse – family dynamic, as if to suggest that any alteration to this (or a?) family ecosystem risks not simply disruption and disorder, but disaster. That we exist as families only in the temporary space of the home and only insofar as we refuse the entry of outside people and outside events. Within these confines, behaviours and morals might be set by the family itself, and it is only with the introduction of these outsiders – whether death or a courting man – that moral codes can be recognized as immoral. Put simply, only in contrast can something be recognized for what it is. So the attempt to seal up and cement over is an act of preservation not just of a body, but of a code and way of life that does not see itself as deviant, but does recognize that the operation of its difference relies on an enforced isolation (and so singularity).

I think DH would like this one. I know I did.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, British literature, Fiction, Mystery

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