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Macabre but brilliant
on 15 June 2007
`The Comfort of Strangers', McEwan's second novel was published at a time when this bright new talent was causing controversy and had been christened Ian Mcabre by critics shocked by the brutality of his themes and his fearless exploration of dark, previously taboo subjects such as incest, sadomasochism and child abduction. With its theme of unhealthy homoerotic obsession there are echoes of the later Enduring Love here. The story opens with a coldly voyeuristic intrusion into the lives of Colin and Mary, an English couple holidaying in an unnamed European city (assumed to be Venice) in an attempt to recapture the passion that has drained out of their relationship. When we join them they are distant from each other, not speaking and sleeping in separate beds. This gulf is apparent in the fact that even their dreams are at odds. Wandering the city in a torpor late one night they encounter Robert, a smooth talking, cruel and sinister local who seems to mesmerize them against their better instincts and takes them to a seedy bar nearby. Despite being unsettled by the encounter they are persuaded by Robert to visit his home the next day. Here they meet Caroline, his put-upon Canadian wife and quickly detect that something is seriously amiss. It soon becomes clear that the gap between these couples is not as wide as it initially appears. Without a doubt Colin and Mary are complicit in their own downfall and their desires, though previously unrealised, are as unwholesome as those of Robert and Caroline. One theme explored is the impact of fathers on children. Robert speaks of the admirable brutality of his father and Caroline, who defines herself only in relation to men, explains the subservience of her mother and herself to her diplomat father, a pattern repeated in their own relationship. The book is drenched in sexual menace and met with a mixed response on publication with one critic accusing McEwan of "squandering his extraordinary gifts". In summary, excellent, as is all McEwan's output.