The first time I read these short stories – some six years ago – I was stunned, but since then I’ve read several other works by McEwan (far from everything, though), and I realized now upon re-reading this collection that this is indeed a first book, with all the usual weaknesses, stylistic imbalances and the occasional awkwardness of first books. (Still, I’d be happy to write such a weak first book as this.)
McEwan’s usual themes are already present here: he writes about the unknown in us and in the others, about the impossibility of growing up, about unexpected violence, and about the dark side of love, sex, and intimacy – but he writes about all this with a lot more subtlety and eloquence in his later books. Here I sometimes feel that his writing is too direct, too coarse – even spoon-feeding.
For example: the main character in one of the stories was pampered by his mother to an unhealthy degree throughout his childhood, and it seems that this character half-consciously wishes to return to the womb. Then one day he gets locked inside a dark and warm place, where he has quite a pleasant time, and from that moment on, his desire to get back to the womb gets even more pronounced. Oh well – this is certainly not the most subtly symbolic piece of writing I’ve ever encountered.
What is already subtle and amazing here though is the way McEwan builds the layers of words, moods and feelings on one another. What I mean is that even though the stories all stand on their own, if you read them one after the other, their individual effects slowly add up, due to the fact that certain themes and motives come up again and again.
For example, several stories feature rivers, channels, and boats of some kind, and it feels to me as if the abandoned boat that starts its slow journey towards the corrupt and violent London at the end of one of the stories were the same as the boat that’s mentioned by another character in another story when he invites an innocent girl for a walk by the channel. In the end it doesn’t matter that the two boats are different – the connection between the two riversides is made, and this way a connection is made between the characters of the two stories, too. Between characters who are innocent, corrupt, lonely, curious, perverted to different degrees – but it’s not as if there was a strict line between innocence and corruption, curiosity and perversion in these stories. It seems as if everything were already present inside everyone, only waiting for a chance to spring to the surface.
Besides riversides and boats, another recurring motif here is role-playing and being forced into unwanted roles, in all kinds of ages and situations: children play adult roles; adults want to force children around them into either the role of the eternal child, or into the role of the miniature adult. And then there’s role-playing onstage (where it’s perverted to do something for real when you’re only supposed to act – to pretend doing it), and at home (where the overly theatrical gestures get oppressive after a while, as they blur the line between acting and reality). This is a rich and intriguing theme, and McEwan examines it from so many aspects in these eight stories that after a while I’m almost scared to do anything for fear that it would turn out to be only acting, turn out to be something that leads to horrible consequences.
So yes – this is a good, eerie, frightening collection – the only thing that bothers me is really only the occasional coarseness.