"First Love, Last Rites (FLLR)" is Ian McEwan's first short story collection and while I love virtually every novel he has written so far - "Enduring Love", "Black Dogs" and "Atonement" are truly modern classics - FLLR is very early McEwan, showing promise but lacking the assured confidence of his later works. In this Somerset Maugham Award winning book, McEwan displays all the qualities that have come to characterise his style. Unafraid to break taboos or upset social conventions, he forces the boundaries of acceptability and occasionally goes for the jugular when he employs shock tactics to awaken our natural instinct for the dark and the macabre that lies dormant beneath our consciousness.
The opening vignette "Solid Geometry" is fascinating sci-fi-cum-horror fare. I couldn't help stifling a chuckle at the inventive way in which the protagonist finally "got rid" of his wife. "Homemade" about the awakening of a boy's sexuality via the only means available to him is another winner, both terrifying and funny. "Butterflies" and "Conversations With A Cupboard Man" are more conventional stories about loners and the devastating effect of repression. "Last Day Of Summer" is a gentle reminder that "still waters run deep" with grotesques. I don't think I got the essence of "Cocker At The Theatre" though it seems to be about sexuality and control and how they don't mix. The last two stories are to me the weakest in the collection. The title story seems tame and listless, ie, it goes nowhere, while the closing vignette "Disguises" is too befuddling to make any sense of. Is the aunt just mad or is she a closet cross dresser and a dominatrix in her little mad house ? Too much of a mindbender for me.
"First Love, Last Rites" is a qualified success. The highs are truly excellent but be prepared for a couple of disappointments.