Novella a Day in May #16

The Comfort of Strangers – Ian McEwan  (1981, 100 pages)

The Comfort of Strangers was Ian McEwan’s second novel, and details a holiday taken by Colin and Mary in an unnamed European city (probably Venice).

They have been together for many years but do not live together. McEwan expertly establishes a couple who share a certain co-dependency and claustrophobia – at least during this holiday – but seem to lack intimacy.

“Colin stood in front of the mirror, listening, and for no particular reason began to shave for the second time that day. Since their arrival, they had established a well-ordered ritual of sleep, preceded on only one occasion by sex, and now the calm, self-obsessed interlude during which they carefully groomed themselves before their dinner-time stroll through the city. In this time of preparation, they moved slowly and rarely spoke. They used expensive, duty-free colognes and powders on their bodies, they chose their clothes meticulously and without consulting the other, as though somewhere among the thousands they were soon to join, there waited someone who cared how they appeared.”

They get lost that evening and are rescued by Robert, a forceful man who tells them a tale from his past. They end up staying with Robert and his wife Caroline in their villa, and the other couple’s relationship emerges as complex and disturbed.

“Caroline spoke cautiously, her face tensed as though she expected at any moment a loud explosion. ‘I hope you don’t mind, there’s something I should tell you. It’s only fair. You see, I came in and looked at you while you were sleeping. I sat on the trunk about half an hour. I hope you’re not angry.’

Mary swallowed and said, uncertainly, ‘No.’”

I can’t say more for fear of spoilers, but will say that McEwan’s considered, cool style lends itself well to a tense, dark tale.

The Comfort of Strangers was adapted into a film in 1990. Having viewed this trailer I’m not sure I’ll be watching it, but I do recommend the trailer itself which is hilarious, enjoy!

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37 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May #16

  1. I really like early McEwan. In this one he really creates a sense of menace. It is one of the few books I have successfully listened to as an audiobook.

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    • It’s the first McEwan I’ve read for a while and I really enjoyed it – as you say, he builds the tension expertly. I keep meaning to try audiobooks but generally I don’t get on with them. I can see this one could work well. Who narrated it?

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      • I don’t really like having books read to me but sometimes they’re ok. I was trying them at a time when I felt I needed to rest my eyes a bit. I think the narrator was Alex Jennings; I felt his reading suited the book.

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  2. This is one McEwan I haven’t read… and the trailer doesn’t do much to sell it! Every time I watch trailers of that vintage I laugh because honestly, the voice overs and style is exactly the kind of thing that my teenagers make on iMovie (as a bit of a joke).

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  3. Haha – I’m so tempted to watch the film now to see if it can possibly be as awful as the trailer! This was one of the first books I read by McEwan back in the day. I loved it back then, but am not at all sure I would now. I fear after he peaked with Atonement, my love affair with him has been downhill all the way ever since – his changing style and my changing taste…

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    • I don’t have an easy relationship with McEwan either, and I think he annoyed a lot of people with the ending of Atonement. I gave him another chance with this as it’s so short and it worked out well, but I’m still wary of him…

      Surely the film can’t sustain that level of awfulness? I fear it probably does though 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not a massive McEwan fan but I liked this. I find him quite cold & his characters unlikeable, but I think the shorter length of this meant those things didn’t bother as much as in some of his longer works. Maybe the awful looking film adaptation would be less of a surprise to you than it was to me!

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        • Pinter does weird adaptations of novels. There’s this and his adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale which totally disregarded the main points of Atwood’s novel. I don’t know why, but with him being a playwright I always expect him to be a bit more sensitive to the source.

          I know what you mean about the point of the novel, there’s a nihilism almost to it. I thought it was about obsession and fetish to the point where you can lose sight of your humanity, but sometimes I think McEwan’s intellectualism distances the reader and so it can feel a bit empty.

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  4. LOLZ!
    ‘A world so erotic and bizarre, there is no separating tenderness and terror’
    That reminded me of working in A&E, and the unfortunate and embarrassed folk with concerns about internally lost property.

    And screenplay by Harold Pinter?? (oh yeah, i watched until the end)
    I want to see it even more, now, 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Oh my, I read this at university, and was blown away by the dark brilliance of McEwan’s writing. Time for a reread I think, and time to vow never, ever to watch that film!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The trailer is hilarious, especially the cheesy voice-over and Christopher Walken abruptly punching Rupert Everett in the stomach. However, I just read “On Chesil Beach” and enjoyed it, and I’d like to read this too (and maybe avoid the movie.) 😛

    Liked by 1 person

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