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First Love, Last RitesFirst Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Oh my. Ian McEwan, you are a sick @&%*! But bloody hell can you write…”

This was my first response to these lean, mean sickening stories of ennui, sexual perversity and emotional absence. McEwan manages to abridge the two opposing poles of sexuality and mortality in these scary little urban tales. Besides this over-arching theme McEwan seems to write each story from the perspective of the perpetrator rather than the victim – something I never actually got comfortable with considering all his protagonists are murderers, incestuous rapists, pimpish theatre directors and paedophiles.

What I suppose I liked about these stories was how McEwan took a day out of an ordinary person’s life, and showed us how quickly it could be degraded, how by degrees an average person could manage to commit an ‘accidental’ crime, sometimes through idle suggestion alone. There is a very precise psychology around these stories and I’m pretty sure anyone who has followed the news over the past 10 years can name at least ONE incident that bears an incredible resemblance to one of the fictions within this slim book.

The taboo subjects in this novel are the things that we tend to shudder and condemn within our circle of family and friends. These are things that we would never dare identify with because it’s outside ‘normal’ accepted social behaviour. The acts themselves are the type that once committed, puts one on a ‘road of no return’. They are acts of self-condemnation and moral ruin, and I sense it is McEwan’s intent to make us feel how close we really are to becoming such monsters. After all, no one is born a rapist or a murderer, and something has to happen to make them that way. And sometimes that something can be a subtle domestic happening that grows to sinister proportions until it finds an awful outlet.

The narrative itself is written in a deceptively straight-forward and often jolly manner which means we instantly fall into the habit of identifying with the narrator. And as readers that is what is expected of us. However, the trap is laid, and when things start getting nasty I personally found I couldn’t ‘disassociate’ myself with the protagonist as I wanted to, and ended up being given a pay-off of disgust and distress.

I have often found McEwan’s writing to be like a ‘small quake’, the events he writes about have a quiet devastation to them. They live long within you like a seismic echo. One of his most loved novels ‘Atonement‘ is a classic example of this which makes ‘First Love, Love Rites’ little miniature versions of such calamities.

The stories that stood out the most were ‘Solid Geometry’ and ‘Conversations With a Cupboard Man’. The former is a borderline gothic tale of spousal enmity and the occult of mathematics. The latter deals with the turbulent past of a retarded man, and looks at the horrific psychological damage done to people who do not receive proper social care.

Despite my glowing review I gave this book 3/5 stars because I have read better by McEwan and hope to discover more novels of the caliber of ‘Atonement’.

If you like Ian McEwan then please visit my review of ‘Amsterdam’.

View all my reviews