An English couple (Mary and Colin) spend their holiday in a city that bears some resemblance with Venice, Italy. After a few days they meet an other couple (Robert and Caroline) who are Canadians but live in that town since several years. The name of that town is never mentioned but it's of no importance. Like "Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann - where the town is only the scene for the impossible love of a sick man for a boy - the city of Ian McEwan is the scene for a man and a woman trying to revive their love for each other. But above all it's the story of their troublesome relationship with the Canadian couple, a relationship that soon will change into a nightmare.
During the nighttime, it's a gloomy city with dark and dirty gables, empty streets, no lights in the houses and every bar and restaurant seem to have vanished into thin air. Only one bar is open. The owner of the bar is Robert. It's an obscure place where unsavory men- captivated by the glittering lights of a jukebox- are listening to the music with stern faces. They listen to the same song over and over again while they hold the jukebox as if it were a life-buoy.
The most intriguing character is Robert. One evening, while Mary and Colin are having a drink in his bar, Robert comes in. He's dressed in a black jacket and a white open shirt and the smell of cheap perfume lingers around him. He invites the English couple - who should be perfect strangers to him - for dinner in his house. While Caroline and Mary are in the kitchen, the men have a conversation about the parents of Robert. At a given moment Colin has to smile a little about something and David, without saying anything, punches Colin in the stomach. Then the conversation continues as if nothing happened. But you get the feeling that the novel might not have a happy ending. Caroline is Robert's wife. She's shy and tense. One gets the impression that she's under the complete control of Robert. You could even say that she seems to be the prisoner of her husband and although she's shy, she yearns for a good conversation as if talking to strangers would comfort her. Mary and Colin are stereotype lovers although they can have rather academic discussions for several hours. These conversations and the digressions by the writer are sometimes long-winded with the result that you become impatient. You want to know how the story unfolds.
Published for the first time in 1981, 'The Comfort of Strangers' is not one of his best achievements ('Atonement', 'Amsterdam'). But you should read this short novel especially when you're a fan of Ian McEwan. I like this novel because you can taste the evil and you can smell the madness albeit for short moments.
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