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!