First Love, Last Rites is the first published work by Ian McEwan. It’s a collection of eight short stories, all of which go a long way towards providing Ian McEwan with his later nickname ‘Ian Macabre’. It’s absolutely bursting to the brim with rather grim and morbid subjects – incest, murder, paedophilia, and all kinds of sexual perversions.
The collection opens with Solid Geometry, a story about a man in a troubled marriage whose most prized possession is the pickled penis of his ancestor, and who uses mathematics to literally make his problems disappear. This is followed by Homemade, a story about a teenage boy who is fed up of being a virgin and wants to get some practice in, and so decides to rape his little sister. Last Day of Summer seems remarkably free of sex, but culminates in a boating accident in which we assume all but one character dies. Cocker at the Theatre doesn’t really have much of a storyline, and I did find myself wondering exactly what was the point in it. It’s about theatre performers pretending to have sex on stage, while one couple actually does. It seems like a rather unnecessary inclusion because it doesn’t have the same level of story that any of the other pieces have, so it felt like it was included solely as an excuse to (yet again) write about sex. I’m definitely sensing a theme in this book! Butterflies has got to be the most fascinating and memorable story in the collection. A little girl has drowned, and the protagonist was the last person to see her alive, although we soon discover it wasn’t in the circumstances he described to the police. I found Butterflies really interesting because of the loneliness of the protagonist and his difficulty fitting in with society, though of course it wouldn’t be an Ian McEwan story without some kind of sexual perversion, so he’s thrown in a spot of paedophilia for good measure. Conversation with a Cupboard Man is about a young man who had a very strange and disturbed childhood, and a downright bizarre relationship with his mother, who insisted on quite literally treating him as a baby until he was a teenager. He consequently wants to revert to being a baby, although he knows he can’t. The title story, First Love, Last Rites is about a couple spending their summer together, and getting by in their new domestic life with rats and foot infections and eels. I’m sure there’s a lot of symbolism in it, but I was a bit put off by the foot infections and sort of wanted to race through it as quickly as possible. The final story, Disguises, is about another strange parent-child relationship, this time with a little boy named Henry whose adoptive mother Mina likes to dress him up as a little girl. I’m sure you’re able to spot the general pattern here, which is that all of the stories are, frankly, a bit weird, and I’d expect nothing less from Ian McEwan.
I have to say though, having read some of Ian McEwan’s other works (The Cement Garden and On Chesil Beach), this collection all seemed a bit too predictable. I just knew it’d be filled with ‘taboos’ and that there’d be something sinister lurking in every story, and so the effect of it, or the shock factor or whatever you want to call it, wasn’t really there for me. Obviously the collection itself wouldn’t have been predictable as Ian McEwan’s first published work, and if I’d read it before any of his other stories I expect I’d have had a very different reaction to it. But because I’d already experienced the McEwan mindset (a mindset which I do often wonder about, considering the darker subjects he’s drawn to), I felt too much like I knew what to expect. Don’t get me wrong, Ian McEwan’s probably one of my favourite authors because he’s so compelling to read, but I’ve now reached the stage where I prefer his later works like Sweet Tooth, where the stories are a bit more fleshed out and there’s more substance to them than just a pit of perversion.