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.
‘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.