First Love, Last Rites, by Ian McEwan

First Love, Last Rites, by Ian McEwan

I can sum up this collection of eight stories in one word: disturbing. I have some more words for it though, if you’re interested: macabre, beautiful, crafted, horrific, and tragic. But even better than my words are Ian McEwan’s words, quoted frequently below.

But first, in general, note that I have to be rather opaque in my descriptions of these stories.  Odd and poignant things happen in all of them (usually at the end), and I’d be loathe to spoil them for you, should you be brave enough to withstand the darker parts of the stories. And, I apologize for my overuse of the word “disturbing.”

Homemade.  Disturbing as hell.  The following is from the opening sentence:

. . . [I]f in human affairs there are no such things as episodes then I should really insist that this story is about Raymond and not about virginity, coitus, incest and self-abuse. (9)

Disturbing right?  Even more so when you realize the narrator is a mere 14-years-old and a psychopath to boot.

Solid Geometry.  A weary husband makes use of the “plane without a surface” to deal with his, to his view, pathetic wife.  Here’s a nice sentence from a dying marriage:

‘You don’t speak to me any more,’ she said, ‘you play me like a pinball machine, for points.’ (40)

One of the unforgettable images in this one is a pickled penis acquired by the narrator’s great-grandfather at auction:

It was bottled in a glass twelve inches long, and, noted by great-grandfather in his diary that night, ‘in a beautiful state of preservation’. (31)

Last Day of Summer.  “Hauntingly beautiful” is a clichéd phrase for a reason, right?  Because this story is hauntingly beautiful.  The narrator is a young orphaned boy living with his adult brother, who has turned the family home into a kind of commune.  He spends the summer with Jenny, the newest member of the household who becomes a kind of mother figure to the group, while remaining outside of it:

And there’s something in the way the others treat Jenny.  Like she’s outside things, and not really a person like they are.  They’ve got used to her cooking big meals and making cakes.  No one says anything about it now. . . . And they still think about how fat she is. (64-65)

This one is very sad. But knowing what I now know about McEwan, with a title like “Last Day of Summer,” I should have expected tragedy.

Cocker at the Theatre.  I have little to say about this one, which is fitting since it is the littlest story at just under six pages.  It takes place during theatre rehearsals for a sexually explicit play that the director insists is ‘a respectable show.’ (73)

Butterflies.  The atmosphere in this one is whole feet thick.  The narrator has nothing to do. He is apparently self-sufficient but lives in a seedy industrial area, near a canal.  He habitually takes solitary walks.  The best way I can describe this is with a quote on the back cover from The New York Times:

“Menace lies crouched between the lines of his neat, angular prose, and weird, grisly things occur in his books with nearly casual aplomb.”

While that describes the whole collection, it is particularly applicable to this story. And the menace in this one comes from the narrator who is a disturbing loner.

I do not meet many people, in fact the only ones I talk to are Charlie and Mr. Watson.  I speak to Charlie because he is there when I leave my front door; he is always the one to speak first, and there is no avoiding him if I want to leave the house.  I do not talk to Mr. Watson so much as listen, and I listen because I have to do into his shop to buy groceries. (87)

Spoiler: This one does not end well.

Conversation with a Cupboard Man. This is one of my favorites in the collection.  It is simply a disturbed man telling an stream-of-conscious account of his life to a social worker.  The details are exquisite and, as I had come to expect by this point, disturbing:

How did I become an adult?  I’ll tell you, I never did learn.  I have to pretend.  All the things you take for granted I have to do it all consciously.  I’m always thinking about it, like I was on the stage.  I’m sitting in this chair with my arms folded, that’s all right, but I’d rather be lying on the floor gurgling to myself than be talking to you.  I can see you think I’m joking.  It still takes me a long time to get dressed in the morning, and lately I haven’t bothered anyway.  And you’ve seen how clumsy I am with a knife and fork.  I’d rather someone came and patted me on the back and fed me with a spoon.  Do you believe me?  Do you think it’s disgusting?  Well, I do.  It’s the most disgusting thing I know.  That’s why I spit on the memory of my mother because she made me this way. (99)

First Love, Last Rites.  This is a story about a summer romance that fades to a relationship.  But it’s more than that too.  The imagery here is great, there are eels and eel traps, and rats, and womb imagery.  It’s deep.  I love how the first line almost encapsulates the story:

From the beginning of summer until it seemed pointless, we lifted the thin mattress on to the heavy oak table and made love in front of the large open window. (115)

Disguises.  Henry’s mother died.  And now he’s been taken in by his Aunt Mina.  Mina was a stage actress.  But now she’s crazy.  And poor Henry just tries to keep afloat.  Mina makes them both dress up in costumes for dinner every night, to sometimes disturbing effect.  And then, Mina decides to have a party in which all of the guests are to come disguised.  Henry mistakenly says that the idea for the party is “nice”:

She stood behind his chair tousling his hair for pretend affection, but pulling it, and stung his eyes.  ‘Henry, dear, it will be formidable, fantastical, awful, but never nice, nothing we ever do will be nice,’ speaking this all the while she ran her hands in his hair, twined it through her fingers. (142)

And, as promised, the things at the party are decidedly not nice.

The whole book made me wonder whether writing a really disturbing story really really well is enough.  But these stories made me react.  Recoil.  Reexamine.  And, ultimately, judge.  I think that is really what the best stories should do.  Don’t you?

First Love, Last Rites, by Ian McEwan [rating:4]

Have you read or reviewed this book too? Feel free to jump in with your thoughts or leave a link to your review in the comments.