As an unhappy art student, aged 18, I wandered into a stationery shop one lunchtime and noticed First Love, Last Rites on a carousel of Picador paperbacks. The carousel was a new thing. So too was Picador. So too was Ian McEwan. The cover image of a naked girl lying on a bed in the soft light of dawn appealed to the habitually lovelorn late-adolescent I then was. I wasn’t a book-buyer, but I spent my lunch money on that book – it cost me £1.25 – and seemed to find something of myself in each of the stories. It was only later that I realised that most of them concerned incest, masturbation, the killing of children. By then I was a student on the MA in Creative Writing at UEA, attempting to emulate this title story. Ian McEwan was my literary first love. Malcolm Bradbury, our teacher on the MA, sounded his last rites when he said one day in class, “The problem with Ian’s recent work is that he’s become too aware of the consequences of his own imagination.”
In First Love, Last Rites, Picador, 1976
I obviously have a thing for macabre stories. Here’s another one. It’s from McEwan’s first published collection. The protagonist is one of those disturbed young men that often feature in his early work (see The Cement Garden): a character you’re constantly watching to see if he is as disturbed as you think he might be. I love the way the story is constructed, with information being revealed and withheld at the right moments, creating an unstable, eerie atmosphere. ‘Eeriness’ is exactly the kind of feeling that a story is able to evoke where a novel or a poem struggles.
From First Love, Last Rites, Jonathan Cape, 1975
I first read McEwan’s debut collection, First Love, Last Rites, when I picked it off my parents’ shelves as a teenager, and the stories impressed me then for their sheer imaginative nastiness. When I read them again much later, I saw how brilliantly made they were – the preciseness of the language, the control of the tone, as well as the wit. In ‘Homemade’ the fourteen-year-old narrator is in competition with his friend Raymond to undergo a range of adult rites of passage, a journey that ends with the rape of his own sister. It is easy to forget, now that McEwan is such an institution, how shocking the book was considered when it was published in 1975. Almost everything he has done since has its echoes – or, more correctly, its origins – in this collection.
First published in First Love, Last Rites (Cape, 1975)