Just finished reading…

17 Jul

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan


I’d read Atonement by McEwan before (I still can’t make myself watch the film even though I know it’s meant to be amazing) which I absolutely loved.  I tried to read Enduring Love but my sister studied it at school (and didn’t like it) and the copy that lies in our bookshelf is dotted with her notes scribbled in biro and sections covered in neon highlighter which I found far too distracting so I soon gave up.  When I worked at Waterstone’s while at school, all the booksellers got given a copy of McEwan’s novel ‘On Chesil Beach’ which I also loved.  There is something utterly compelling about the way he writes; he sets the scene so vividly and is able to build tension with an amazing level of skill.  It is perhaps the subtlety he employs when writing that is most engaging, drawing the reader in to the world he has created convincingly.

I had read in an interview that McEwan’s earlier work tended to be darker, earning him the nickname Ian McAbre.  This is definitely the case with ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ which explores themes of domestic violence, repressed homosexuality, extreme sadism and masochism.  Not for the faint-hearted.

The story follows a modern couple (Colin and Mary) on holiday in an unnamed city (but most likely Venice) who meet a strange couple (Robert and Caroline).  I guess the title alludes to the fact that after Colin and Mary meet this couple, they become more passionate themselves – spending time with the strange couple seems to ignite some lost passion in Colin and Mary who lock themselves in their hotel room for days afterwards.

All through the novella, McEwan expertly builds a sense of suspense and the story reaches its climax right at the end, which is both chilling and disturbing.  What I especially liked was that McEwan took care to exhibit Robert and Caroline’s motivations – we learn at the beginning of a childhood incident involving Robert and his sisters and his relationship with his father, which helps the reader understand how he has come to form his outmoded opinions on men and women.  Caroline is portrayed as a weak figure when Mary first sees her – a broken, fragile woman trapped in a loveless marriage.  But by the end, we learn of Caroline’s motivations, her desire to be hurt and punished, and her part in the final scene which makes the whole story even more distressing.

The sinister themes are inescapable in the novella and form much of the tension; however, McEwan’s superb illustration of the perils of a long term relationship should not be overlooked.  His poetic prose never fails to amaze me.  He illustrates the lack of passion, over-familiarity and even the sometimes parasitic nature of relationships beautifully by examining Colin and Mary’s relationship.  The quotation below seems to capture this:

This was no longer a great passion. The pleasure was in its unhurried friendliness, the familiarity of its rituals and procedures, the secure, precision-fit of limbs and bodies, comfortable, like a cast returned to its mold. 

I’ve since found out that this has been made into a film starring Rupert Everett as Colin, Natasha Richardson as Mary, Christopher Walken (perennially taking the ‘creepy’ guy roles) and Helen Mirren as Caroline.  In my mind, I have clear ideas of these characters, none of which match the actors cast so I’ll probably give this a miss.. plus the end scene would just be weird to watch…

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