McEwan’s critically acclaimed second novel deals with raw, disturbing, and often darkly sexual themes—and the uneasy relationship between the sexes. A gripping read, this book offers insights that inform both the study of literature and gender relations.
Colin and Mary are lovers on holiday in Italy, their relationship becoming increasingly problematic as they become increasingly alienated from one and other. They move from place to place in this foreign land but seemingly without aim or purpose and more, seemingly bored and without attachment.
Then they meet a man named Robert and his wife, Caroline, who is crippled. Colin and Mary seem happy for the diversion--happy to meet another couple that takes the focus of off them (off of each other) for a while. Things become strange (and stranger yet; one could say horrific) when they attempt to leave: Robert and Caroline insist that they stay with them for a while longer.
While Mary and Colin indeed rediscover each other in ways during this time--an erotic attraction to each other that was below the surface--they also find that their relationship/friendship with Robert and Caroline takes turns that are likewise erotic and violent in nature. A pervasive dread runs through this novel, leading to the terrible climax that no reader could predict. Absolutely in the key of McEwan, without match in the genre, and a very worthwhile read.
First Love, Last Rites was McEwan's first published book and is a collection of short stories that in 1976 won the Somerset Maugham Award. A second volume of his work appeared in 1978. These stories--claustrophobic tales of childhood, deviant sexuality and disjointed family life--were remarkable for their formal experimentation and controlled narrative voice. McEwan's first novel, The Cement Garden (1978), is the story of four orphaned children living alone after the death of both parents. To avoid being taken into custody, they bury their mother in the cement of the basement and attempt to carry on life as normally as possible. Soon, an incestuous relationship develops between the two oldest children as they seek to emulate their parents roles. The Cement Garden was followed by The Comfort of Strangers (1981), set in Venice, a tale of fantasy, violence, and obsession. The Child in Time (1987) won the Whitbread Novel Award and marked a new confidence in McEwan's writing. The story revolves around the devastating effects of the loss of a child through child abduction. Readers may know McEwan's work through these and other books, or more recently through his novel, Atonement, which was made into a major motion picture.