‘First Love, Last Rites’ by Ian McEwan

I picked up a second-hand paperback copy of McEwan’s debut collection when I was a student. I didn’t know his work at the time and reading it felt like the most precious discovery. From the opening line: “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.” the story has all the hallmarks of the spare, hallucinogenic style of McEwan’s early work. The story relays a long, languorous summer spent by two lovers in their late teens in a decaying room overlooking a quayside on the River Ouse. The young male narrator embarks on a hapless money-making scheme constructing eel traps. His girlfriend gets a job working in a factory across the river. The summer grows hot, the room airless and increasingly squalid. The torpid atmosphere stirred occasionally by visits from his girlfriend’s annoying little brother. The rest of the time is spent making careless, messy, indolent love, and, as their relationship stagnates, the narrator’s sexual fantasies mix with those about a creature and strange sounds in the wall.

Collected in First Love, Last Rites, Jonathan Cape 1975

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