First Love, Last Rites – Ian McEwan

I am not generally a prudish person. I might not like the odd swear word in a book if it jars or seems out of character, but I don’t believe reading should always be comfortable and in fact some literature needs to be confronting to address certain issues. Odd then that, a favourite author of mine too, Ian McEwan’s debut collection of short stories ‘First Love, Last Rites’ has left me feeling rather conflicted, I read it all with a feeling that I really shouldn’t continue on and yet I did.

Vintage Books, paperback, 1975, fiction, short stories, 176 pages, from my personal TBR

‘First Love, Last Rites’ is a murky collection of tales. The subject matter in these short stories will disturb and quite possibly offend the most hardened or open minded of us. Here we have a mixture of titillating tales of naked posing, masturbation and dressing up, but we also have a much darker selection based on incest, rape, child abduction, possible murder and abuse. With the lighter few of these stories like ‘Cocker at the Theatre’ (think Mrs Henderson Present’s but a bit filthier and made me guffaw) I read in a rather teenage giggly way. However the darker stories really divided me.

I have read many book in which horrific things are depicted, be they from incest to the horrors of war, and have found the occasional graphic nature of them to be appropriate and justified rather than offensive, uncomfortable yes but not without reason. With ‘First Love, Last Rites’ I couldn’t really work out if these darker tales needed to be told (odd I know seeing as I think McEwan’s ‘The Cement Garden’ is a fantastic if horrific novella) and if so how graphically. For example ‘Butterflies’ would be a celver but disturbing tale of a man abducting a child, agreed not a story for everyone, and yet when the actual horrific act happens McEwan does a lot of showing and telling, rather than possibly leave it to the readers imagination – which can actually be worse.

It was this factor that made me feel rather like a voyeur and made me ponder on why I was reading these stories. What was the point in them when they had no real depth and seemed to be a young author’s first works based on how to be shocking; this was the difference between these shorts and ‘The Cement Garden’ which is a fully rounded deeply disturbing tale. It was this very feeling which I tried to express on twitter when I said that I had been compelled to read them when I didn’t think I should and how I then ended up feeling rather ‘grubby’ afterwards.

As a fan of McEwan’s work (and I have read a lot of it) I weirdly wasn’t as disappointed with this collection as I could have been despite my thoughts above. It sort of seemed to make sense. I interestingly don’t think I would have been compelled to read anymore of McEwan’s work; in fact I was rather surprised it won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976, if I had happened upon this first apart from possibly as a teenager when the titillation factor would have won over, hey I wasn’t so selective in my reading then. However having become a fan of McEwan from his more modern and better known novels I can see this whole series of tales as almost warm ups as to what was to come. This didn’t endear me to ‘First Love, Last Rites’ any the more, it just explained it in some way to me.

‘First Love, Last Rites’ is a challenging and dark read, one which should you choose to try out will have you looking at the fine lines between being a reader and a voyeur and also between what makes a challenging read and one which seems set simply to shock, albeit very well written like all of McEwan’s works.

33 Comments

Filed under Ian McEwan, Review, Short Stories, Vintage Books

33 responses to “First Love, Last Rites – Ian McEwan

  1. I think my favourite remake about writing ever was made by David Foster Wallace (not sure if he was quoting somebody else or if this was his originally, either way:) it’s helped me to make sense of so many works and my understanding of them: “The role of the writer is to disturb the comforted and to comfort the disturbed”.

  2. *and obviously that was meant to say ‘remark’. Whoops.
    I’d make a lousy proof reader…

  3. Nice review Simon. I have not as yet read this or indeed ‘In between the Sheets’ but enjoyed ‘The Cement Garden’ I read McEwan’s ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ last month and was a little underwhelmed by that as well.

    • I wasn’t underwhelmed by this Paul, and some of the stories were good, actually all of them were, the problem for me was too much showing and telling and the icky feeling that gave me.

  4. Hmm…thought provoking. First Love, Last Rites was the first Ian McEwan I ever read, years ago. The opening story was so disturbing, I didn’t go back to the book for some time. There is certainly an unsettling quality to the whole book and I wonder whether it tainted my view of him as a writer. I thought he was a bit weird, strangely voyeuristic and I just didn’t get it, hence I didn’t read any others by him until Chesil Beach which I thoroughly enjoyed for its honesty. As you say, the whole “show and tell” nature of his writing style gets you through the uncomfortable bits. I may well re-visit the short stories now that I am older and more mature!

    • I can imagine that having a ‘I need to leave this a while’ effect to be honest. After the first story I wasnt sure that I wanted to read on if I am honest. (This may have been why this collection took me so long.) Yet because I know and trust McEwan as a writer now I did carry on. If he was a new to me writer I am not sure I would have read anymore, I find that quite interesting in a weird way as a reader.

  5. Louise

    I don’t know what this says about me, but, you’ve really made me want to read this! I do love all things dark and disturbing. I’m not easily freaked out (unless it’s clowns, but we won’t go there) so I’m always on the lookout for something to try and give me the wiggins.

    I don’t mean to come across impertinent at all however, I haven’t received the books I won, in December. I don’t know if they were coming directly from you or from the publishers. If they were coming from you, and they’ve been sent out please let me know, so I can have words with my addlebrain postie.

    • I love that you are freaked out by clowns! I detest clowns too. But I blame Stephen King.

      • Louise

        Ooh don’t get me started on IT! I remember being at a sleepover watching that, and my friend’s brother came out from the sofa and in a very creepy whisper said ” Louise wanna balloon” I swear I nearly pooped my sleeping bag ha ha!

        And then there was the time I attacked Ronald Mcdonald, true!

    • Ha, it doesn’t say anything weird about you Louise, it just shows your open to all fiction and thats a good thing, I feel the same, this just irked me.

      The publishers should have sent all the books Louise (not me, sorry) I will chase them and see whats what. Can you email me and I can contact you that way.

  6. I’m becoming a bit afraid of picking up a McEwan. I still say he’s one of my favorite authors because of the impact of “Atonement” and “On Chesil Beach”. But then I just “liked” “Amsterdam”, “Saturday”, and “Enduring Love”, while I didn’t connect at all with “Solar” (one of my few “I Quit”s of 2011). Because I read them in this order, I’m afraid to continue the downward spiral.

    Do you have any recommendations for the next one? Would “The Cement Garden” be a good option? I need a winner, but don’t think this collection is it.

    • Hmmm interesting Alex, I would say try ‘The Cement Garden’ or ‘In Between The Sheets’ which is a good collection and not as icky as this one.

      McEwan will always stay a favourite writer of mine for Atonement and Chesil Beach, I liked Amsterdam a lot too. Solar was a bit ‘meh’ I saw what he was doing but that was the problem, I could sense a certain calculation to it. ‘Saturday’ I really struggled with and gave up. But shouldnt some of your favourites have that sort of testy relationship with you sometimes?

  7. Ah, so this is the book you said made you feel ‘grubby’ when you emailed last week. Not sure I want to rush out and read it, but I do have the Cement Garden in my pile. In fact, I was going to read it last week but then went to the library and borrowed Rebecca, on a whim, and that was the end of that.

    Perhaps because he was a young writer at the time he just had to get those things out of his system. I’ve not read a huge amount of McEwan but the ones I have read haven’t been that dark and disturbing so I can’t say it’s a trademark of his or anything… although others may disagree.

    • Also I think one quickly forgets that this book and the volume that followed ‘In Between The sheets’ were used by McEwan to ‘discover his artistic voice’. Often these short stories from an authors early career stay locked up in their desks and usually stay there. I think I’ll give this a read over the weekend.

    • This is indeed the grubby book Kim. The Cement Garden is very good, icky but it needs to be, I didnt see the need in these stories at all. My main issue really. It just seemed to be shocking to be shocking.

      Cannot wait to see what you make of Rebecca, well I hope I can’t.

  8. not read this one and not huge Mcewan fan myself Simon but this must have been good at time to win the Maugham ,all the best stu

  9. Tom Perkins

    Not sure about this book but I enjoyed, if that is the right word, The Comfort of Strangers. A very dark book, I had to recommend it to a friend who lives in Rome, but advised him to avoid men in white suits.

    • Ha Tom, you just put it so well, with McEwans books ‘enjoyed’ isnt always the right word is it, they are enjoyable to read but not always enjoyable in subject matter or comfort zone.

  10. lizzysiddal

    Thanks for this, Simon. One more off the TBR! (I need all the help I can get.)

  11. JoV

    I read Atonement and On Chesil beach and I love them both. I have Solar, Saturday and Enduring Love lined up for me. I’ll avoid this, I too think that is a little way out there to enable for me to accept such dark subject matter. I would probably read on like you do but I think it’s best never to pick it up in the first place!

    • I will be interested to see how you get on with Solar and Saturday, I call them the two testing S’s. I liked Solar but didnt think it was amazing, initially brilliant faded fast, and I just couldn’t read Saturday, I gave up. I will try again though one day.

      • JoV

        I hope you do Simon. Thanks for ‘rescuing’ my comments out of your spam box. My ID has been blacklisted somehow and I can’t comment on any new blog now… big thanks again!

      • JoV

        I’m just trying out. Cannot believe that after you ‘rescued’ my comments it still goes into spam! what am i going to do??!! 😦

      • I have just done it again, twice. I think Stu of Winstons Dad Blog has had the same issue I don’t know how or if he resolved it, but he maybe worth asking.

  12. novelinsights

    Interesting. That’s how I felt reading Hotel Iris which I’ll write up soon. Perhaps I’m getting a little more easily shocked as I get older…

  13. I am soooo divided with Ian McEwan. I just seem to feel really ‘meh’ or just absolutely delighted by his writing. ‘The Cement Garden’ is just great and I felt dealt with uncomfortable topics in an appropriately oblique manner at times, which, like you said, often makes it all the more disturbing. Some of these stories sound a little to obvious for me. I work with criminal barristers and these nasty parts of life are sometimes best approached directly by the professionals!

    • Have you read any Ferdinand von Schirach (I think I’ve spelt that right) at all Lucy? He’s a lawyer who has ‘fictionalised’ some of his most shocking and surprising cases. Well worth a read. I’ve just got his follow up to ‘Crime’ appropriately called ‘Guilt’.

      McEwan divides me a lot too if I’m honest but when he’s brilliant I think he’s one of the modern greats.

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