So why would we have to go back to 1975 to appreciate McEwan’s talents when we have much more recent works? Well, one would argue that the way in which McEwan, as a young man in his early twenties, finds and produces a correlation between literature and the state of the economy and the politics of the time has a resonance for us also in the here and now.
The 1970s saw the deterioration of society’s trust as Britain grew into a politically alienated country full of suspicion and distrust. The short story ‘Butterflies’ – which is in First Love, Last Rites – captures this mood in a way like no other. ‘Butterflies’ tells the story of a young paedophile who relives the moment that his victim dies. McEwan, very cleverly, finds his way inside the narrator’s mind and takes the audience with him. In a sense McEwan employs a form of authorial bad faith when telling the story of our unnamed protagonist so that he is able to create a false sense of sympathy of him.
It could be said that the story’s unnamed protagonist represents the distrustful society of the early 1970s but also anticipates the fixation that society has today on the figure of the paedophile, so often the central character of our contemporary media narratives.