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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.
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on 28 January 2006
Being an Ian McEwan fan I couldn't wait to read this. It only took me one sitting and as always was very readable and totally engrossing - causing mounting fear and tension like only McEwan knows how to, with nothing in particular happening but an increasing sensation that something is about to (how does he do that?!). The book is set in Venice which adds to the calm mystique and general atmosphere of the story. The end was shocking - I felt quite sick after reading it. This is definitely one of McEwan's most twisted and chilling reads and I couldn't quite work out whether I had enjoyed it or not. Recommended although definitely not my favourite by the author.
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on 13 September 2012
Read Susan Hill's 2008 novella "The Man in the Picture", in which a newly-married couple loses its way in Venice with fatal consequences for the bridegroom. Her book celebrated the mystery of Venice, but was it scary?
Please read Ian McEwan's second novel (1981), then compare and shiver! It deals with Mary and Colin on a weeks-long holiday to Venice and nowhere else. They have been a couple for seven years, but are somehow inert, silent, unable to plan ahead or live their daily lives: forgetting their town plan, they lose their way every day. This novella has been written in a more languid voice than Susan Hill's, but in a far more intrusive manner. Readers wish for a quick grip on a story, but McEwan does not allow this. Right from the start, his tale is full of dark portents...

Mary has 2 children who stay with their dad in a UK commune. She was an actor in a woman's collective, now defunct. Colin tried singing, then acting, no more info, except that he looks cute. In my view, the couple appears doomed from page one. They do not behave like normal tourists and fall prey to mysterious black-clad Robert, first acting as a guide, then as owner of an underground gay bar with a jukebox emitting blue light like an ambulance or policecar that blasts out again and again the same pumping, shrieking song, whose refrain "Ha, ha, ha" is sung along loudly by the black-clad clientele of cruisers.
The refrain shortened for copyright reasons(?), the tune must be the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive", a worldwide disco hit and another clue among several about impending death McEwan planted in this tragedy. Read on to see how the trustful couple succumbs to the charms and fictions of Robert and his handicapped wife Caroline, which bodes ill for the male hero, as in Susan Hill's book. It all ends in blood and drama. Brr. On several counts, I rate McEwan's early story higher than Susan Hill's. Both books should be read more than once, because plenty of questions remain.
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VINE VOICEon 12 April 2012
Surreal is an overworked word these days but it fits this novella. Enigmatic too. McEwan is spare with his words yet creates a melodramatic impact and this style has become something of a trademark. Though on a heavier scale this was a cross between the langourous work of Kazuo Ishiguro and the febrile writing of D H Lawrence, yet more macabre, sexual as opposed to sensual. Some might argue, and I would accept, pornographic.

There are two descriptions of faces, one male, one female, and these are unlike anything I have read before, with intense picturesque detail and examination of every facial feature contained within one paragraph.

Is this Venice? I'm not convinced, though I'm aware that this is the accepted location. Does it matter where it is set and we are not told? On one level I think it does - McEwan is teasing us, intensifying the mystery.

I didn't enjoy reading this. In fact it made me quite uncomfortable, yet, once started it had to be finshed to find where it was going, though I had a sense of how it would end.

It is not a book to enjoy but to thrill at the language and study the psychology. I might even want to say that parts of it are sick. Whatever goes on in McEwan's mind he is amazingly adept at translating it to the page.
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on 13 July 2011
I find McEwan's writing somewhat addictive and binge-provoking. His strength is in taking the reader gently into a quiet place, and then as it turns dark, gripping him by the throat and forcing him to watch the night unfold. Once you are in the heads of the protagonists, there is no escape.

The Comfort of Strangers shares a certain stylistic approach with On Chesil Beach: Dual protagonists which at times blur into a single composite entity. I will turn away from spoiling the plot for the unwary by telling how one feels at the end of the tale, except to say that you will feel something.

McEwan is a master of defamiliarisation, which is what makes his sometimes 'mundane' scenarios so compelling, in turn leaving you unprepared for the lurking strangeness.

The Comfort of Strangers is arguably a tragedy of Shakespearian scope, and thus conveys most of its disturbing drama via the sense of the inescapable in the yet self-inflicted fate of the protagonists.

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on 27 September 2003
'The Comfort of Strangers' at 100 pages long is an excellent thriller. It starts off subtly with a couple holidaying in Venice but rapidly becomes dark, twisted and chilling. McEwan writes extremely well, capturing the mood and emotions of the characters perfectly and depicting the darker side of human nature. It is an excellent book to get into Ian McEwan with before tackling his more famous works like Enduring love and Atonement. Read in one sitting 'The Comfort of Strangers' will get your adrenalin running and scare you witless. Buy it and read it next time you have two or three hours to kill.
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on 21 December 2012
A novel which seems to be about a very ordinary couple going on holiday in Venice turns into a shocking story about how people let themselves be lured into danger, conniving in their own degradation. One of those books which takes the minority view on Venice, portraying it as a threatening, seedy place, "The Comfort of Strangers" also shows the disturbing side of sex. It is so well-planned that you could read it twice in order to seek out all the clues and hints that McEwan planted early on. Colin and Mary's sex life takes off in Venice, after years in which it was not far off non-existent. At one stage they create horrible sexual fantasies for each other which, in unaroused moments, they then find repellent. But it seems that a trigger for their new-found closeness is a sub-conscious realisation in both that they are putting their safe existences in danger. Ian McEwan has to be one of the best writers on sex around. The Comfort Of Strangers
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on 8 December 2012
I overlooked this Ian McEwan book previously, but looked it up after reading Sweet Tooth recently. I did look at the reviews of others before I bought and was a little discouraged by some. However I really enjoyed the book.
Some reviewers seemed to attach great importance to the fact that the author does not name the location, and also that some of the action is a little beyond belief - however surely the locations, activities and motivations, thoughts and desires created by an author of fiction are essentially dreamed up and strung together skillfully to entertain and sometime challenge the reader. If it is a travelogue and action always in line with your predictable logic then you probably wont always get satisfaction from this kind of creative author
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on 16 July 2011
This is a great book. It's short and direct (like 'Saturday' should've been) but it's really grim at the same time - I felt itchy, sticky and light-headed after finishing it. I suppose this makes me remember it though, which can't be a bad thing.

There are a couple of unlikely bits (as mentioned by other reviewers), but if you like Ian McEwan and appreciate how dark his prose can be at times, then you should check this sinister title out. Just cos the word 'comfort' is in the title, don't expect that to be part of the experience...
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on 12 October 2012
This novel attracted excellent reviews and I admire Ian McEwan, so I was really looking forward to reading this.

BUT - the main characters are puppet-like and superficial, living in a permanent daze. The way they are described is similarly detached and it is hard to sympathise with any characters or the way they behave.

And the plot is quite ridiculous and can be summarised in one sentence, as other reviewers here have mentioned.

Sorry - I didn't feel that this book can be described as 'macabre' or chilling. It was simply a dull description of what happened to a weak and emotionless couple in Venice (though it could be anywhere) and it's hard for the reader to even care. Not worth the effort.
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