The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

The Comfort of Strangers

I found The Comfort of Strangers to be the most uncomfortable Ian McEwan book I’ve read, which is really saying something. It’s his second novel, written after The Cement Garden, and together they earned him the title of Ian Macabre. I didn’t have a problem with The Cement Garden, but I didn’t really enjoy reading The Comfort of Strangers at all.

The novel begins with a couple, Mary and Colin, on holiday. The book is mainly about their relationship which seems to be getting a little tired, but they do the usual sightseeing and meet Robert, a local man, and his disabled wife. Meeting these two somehow seems to revive Mary and Colin’s relationship, but it gets a bit sinister when they discover that Robert and his wife have a sexually violent relationship, and that Robert was responsible for his wife’s injuries. Robert develops a weird obsession with Colin, and he and his wife (Caroline? I can’t even remember her name!) drug Mary before slitting Colin’s wrists.

The main problem I had with this book was that I found it to be really unsatisfying. That’s not a reflection of the storyline itself, but perhaps just the way in which the story was told. It may be because it was one of Ian McEwan’s earliest works and he’s improved in leaps and bounds since, but I just felt that the book didn’t gel with me at all. To start with, I found it really hard to get into, and it actually took me three or four attempts over the course of a year or so before I sat down and really persevered with it. The beginning mainly focuses on the couple sitting in their hotel room, smoking pot and doing a bit of yoga, and there wasn’t really a hook or anything that made me want to keep reading. Considering that it’s only around a hundred pages long, it’s far too short a book to spend pages and pages waiting for something to happen. In terms of its length it could easily be read in one sitting, but I found that I often wanted to put it down and move on to something else. In short, I was bored for the majority of the book, and once I stopped being bored I found reading it to be a rather uncomfortable experience.

I didn’t at any point feel drawn into the story, and I didn’t feel a connection with any of the characters. I didn’t particularly care what happened to any of them, and I found myself finishing the book more out of a sense of hating things to be unfinished than because I was particularly keen to find out what happened. Ultimately, I found the ending to be deeply unsatisfying. The book meanders its way towards a weird, twisted train wreck , and then the train wreck happens and nothing more comes of it. There’s no resolution; Colin is murdered but there’s no punishment, there’s no continuation beyond that point. We see Colin dying, we hope that someone’s going to save him but no one does, and he’s dead and that’s that. The perpetrators are gone, and the authorities don’t particularly care. It’s so unsatisfying. I know that I didn’t care for the characters, but I sort of felt that other characters within the book might care, but even Mary didn’t seem as affected as I’d have thought she would. It was all very strange. I also found it hard to get a clear idea of the characters and their relationship with one another. Mary and Colin had been a couple for seven years I think, but Mary already had children from a previous marriage, and yet both seem to be really young still. Or was Mary having an affair with Colin while her marriage was ongoing? I just don’t know. I found it really hard to get them straight in my head, which is probably why I felt so distanced when reading about them.

When a one hundred page book feels like it’s hard work to get through, you know you’re in trouble. I really like Ian McEwan, I know that he has a reputation as being a dark and twisted writer, but I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve read a fair amount of his back catalogue now, so I can say that, in my opinion, The Comfort of Strangers is far from being his best work. I know this is not the popular consensus because, as far as I’m aware, The Comfort of Strangers has been widely praised and is often held responsible for Ian McEwan building his name as a respected author, but for me it’s just not on a par with his other works. While I don’t always expect to find his books to be enjoyable reads as such, I usually still find them to be compelling. In this case, I wasn’t compelled or even particularly interested which, given the nature of the subject matter, did come as a bit of a surprise to me.

See also reviews of The Children Act, First Love, Last Rites, Sweet Tooth and Enduring Love by Ian McEwan.