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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 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 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.

Brilliant.
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on 11 October 2010
I have been a great fan of Ian McEwan's novels for many years and I came across The Comfort of Strangers completely unaware that it was one of his early efforts. I started it full of the expectation which I naturally reserve for a favourite writer.

I hadn't got far into it before the alarm bells started ringing.

Quick plot summary. Two very strange and stupid people go on holiday and meet two lunatics who do really horrible things to them for no apparent reason.

Colin and Mary are on holiday in Venice. For some bizarre reason the name of the city is never mentioned, and given that there is literally nowhere else on this earth that it could possibly be, it comes across as a particularly pompous literary device. Anyway, Colin and Mary are not speaking and we never find out why. They are preparing for their ritual evening of cocktails followed by dinner. They seem vague, detached, disinterested and bored. At the time I thought that this could be interesting as there is so much not said but having waded through this turgid tome I don't feel it's much of spoiler to advise you not to hold your breath.

Well, anyway, for no apparent reason they suddenly forgive each other and decide to make love (and what a lacklustre event this is) which delays their plans for the evening. Now here the author would have us believe that all the restaurants in one of the top tourist destinations in the world are closed by 9pm. Colin and Mary know this too but they go out anyway. They have been lost many times before but they don't take the maps. (What?) And what happens? Yes, they get lost!

They meet a stranger called Robert who won't stop touching them - so much that they both ask him to stop. They go to a gay bar with him. There is no food in this bar (the cook is ill) so they drink several bottles of wine. Robert tells them his life story. Conveniently, Robert speaks English extraordinarily well which absolves Colin and Mary of the necessity of being fluent in Italian. His father and his beastly sisters were very unkind to him.

They leave the bar and Colin and Mary, having not thought of the most obvious solution to their present problem, that is asking directions from Robert who is a local, let him simply walk away and they continue being lost. They sleep in the street. (What?) They wake up very thirsty and can't find a cafe in Venice. (What?) They go to the hospital because they might be able to get a drink of water. (What?) Nothing happens but now they don't appear to be lost so much so they decide to head back to the hotel via St Mark's Square. Hey presto, there are some cafes here! They are still very very thirsty (indeed Mary's lips are cracked) but the nasty waiter won't give them any water. (What?) He does tell them where there is a tap but they ignore this and stay and order coffee. Robert happens to walk past and he invites them to his place. They accept and leave in a boat with him before their coffee arrives.

[If I may just interrupt here to say that I have been to Italy several times (including Venice) and the standard response when you ask for water is 'Sí, Signore, acqua minerale o naturale?' - 'Yes sir, mineral water or natural?' Also this business of being lost is just not credible - of course you can get momentarily confused in those little streets but the Grand Canal is only ever a stone's throw away from anywhere, and I am mystified as to how McEwan can possibly expect the millions upon millions of people who have been there to believe that these two had to resort to sleeping in the street.]

Colin and Mary wake up in Robert's house and they can't find their clothes. (What?) Mary does some shoulder stands anyway with nothing on. (What?) She finds a nightie so she goes on a tour of the house leaving Colin naked and alone. She meets Robert's wife Caroline (for the first time) who gives her many sandwiches to eat. Mary doesn't mention Colin who is still alone and naked in the bedroom and who apparently hasn't eaten anything for about 36 hours. The two women discuss murder. (As you do). Colin joins them wearing only a handtowel. Caroline tells them she has been looking at them while they were asleep and naked. (What?) She invites them to dinner and they accept. (What?)

During drinks before dinner Robert punches Colin in the stomach and he collapses on the floor. (What?) Colin does not question this. (What?) They continue with cocktails during which Robert fondles Colin's shoulders. (What?) After dinner Caroline invites them to return and they accept. (What?) She explains that she can't leave the house because she is so badly injured. No-one asks what happened to her. (What?) It turns out later that she has masochistic tendencies and she never really got over that last broken back (Huh?)

Colin and Mary return to their hotel and, inexplicably, indulge in a 4-day frenzy of sex and gluttony. (What?) At meal times they have 1½ courses each and 2 bottles of wine each. Not one hangover or bout of vomiting is mentioned. (Now, I don't know about you but I reckon Colin must be made of very stern stuff if he can consume such a vast amount of alcohol and still manage to ravish his girlfriend several times a day for four days). They discuss orgasms. Colin reveals that he has an aching emptiness somewhere between his scrotum and his anus. (Good grief! Do we really need to know this?)

The next morning Mary reveals that while they were at Robert and Caroline's for dinner she saw a photo of Colin that Robert showed her. She apparently didn't ask Robert how he came to have this, nor did she didn't mention it then to Colin or during the next 4 days. (What?) She is very frightened. Colin would understandably be a bit spooked too but his reaction isn't mentioned.

On a completely overcast day (the sky is described as being black!) Colin and Mary decide to go to the beach. Just before they leave Colin sticks his finger deep inside Mary, (What?) but they remind each other they are going to the beach and they pull apart to pack the towels. They have a bitch of a time finding a spot on the beach but they do and then Mary nearly drowns. Well, no actually she wasn't drowning at all - she was just having a lovely swim but Colin was absolutely certain she was in peril and spent ages stroking out to save her, nearly drowning himself in the process. (What?)

On the way back they decide not to go all the way round the island so they get off the boat at a different stop and who should they run into? That's right. Those two loonies. So what do they do in their infinite wisdom? They go into their house. (Oh God almighty!)

Need I go on?

The grisly denouement is just as bizarre as the rest of it and will leave you scratching your head with mystification.
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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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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 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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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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