Mr. McEwan is a stirring writer, and his mastery of his pathetic household (and of us) is complete, but his strength is matched a weakness—a willingness to settle for a tour de force.
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.
One afternoon as I was at my desk, these four children, with their distinct identities, suddenly rose before my imagination. I didn’t have to build them up—they appeared ready-made. I wrote some quick notes, then fell into a deep sleep. When I woke, I knew that at last I had the novel I wanted to write. I worked obsessively for a year, paring the material back all the time because I wanted the novel to be brief and intense.
It’s the acute psychology, not the incest and morbidity, that’s most affecting in The Cement Garden. As much as that says for McEwan’s adroit characterizations, it also questions his taste.— Brian Flanagan