Hospitality; ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ by Ian McEwan [1981]

tcosIt is very rare that I find I enjoy everything an author has written. Some tend to begin well and then falter, others improve as they write and some authors compose better short stories than they do novels. Ian McEwan falls into the latter category, purely subjectively. Of the three McEwan stories I have read, The Cement Garden, Atonement and The Comfort of Strangers, Atonement was least enjoyed; if enjoyed much at all.

Rather than being displeased with this outcome, I find it comforting. Considering the vast subject matters and occurrences that I am able to connect with, I would be scared if all books had a resounding affect on me. I would feel as if I were in ‘The Alice Show’, where everything was written with me in mind; creepy.

As their holiday unfolds, Colin and Maria are locked into their own intimacy. They groom themselves meticulously, as though someone is waiting for them who cares deeply about how they appear. When they meet a man with a disturbing story to tell, they become drawn into a fantasy of violence and obsession.Synopsis from GoodReads.

McEwen does something to me similar to Japanese horror films, he scares me without really showing me anything scary. It is the anticipation, noticing that all is not well, and the subtle character interactions; you do not need blood and gore with an author who can scare you with mere words. His characters are subtly creepy, like many dysfunctional people their oddities are slowly disclosed the more the protagonists are trusted or needed.

We begin The comfort of Strangers with Colin and Mary, after seven years together the magic is waning; they are more one person than two separate people. After getting lost in their foreign city they bump into Robert who takes them to his bar to recount his childhood story. Until Robert’s introduction I was only casually reading, with Robert came McEwan’s hook. The story Robert retells of his childhood, his fathers intense control of his sisters sexuality and restriction of his diet, was fascinating; Robert almost unknowingly turned himself against his sisters with his fathers favouritism. Creepiness aside, I believe any child with brothers or sisters can understand the fine balance between sticking together or siding with the parent. As a child you feel pride when a parent takes your side, it makes you feel as if you are being treated as an adult.

Robert is overtly friendly with both our English couple and myself, an English reader, both of whom are more reserved in conversing with strangers. Initially this seems an irrational discomfort on the side of Mary and Colin; however on the introduction of Caroline, Robert’s frail wife, we begin to realise Robert and Caroline’s relationship is not as natural as they would like to project. In this, we are taken to a surprisingly horrific conclusion which I will not spoil for you. McEwen has a talent at taking an uncomfortable encounter and making it sinisterly brilliant. You know something bad is going to happen, but you have no idea quite what the twist is going to be.

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3 Comments on "Hospitality; ‘The Comfort of Strangers’ by Ian McEwan [1981]"

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Kya
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Oh that sounds amazing. I will have to add this to my wishlist. :D

Charlie
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I like the idea of something being scary yet nothing really scary is happening, those kind of stories just seem more successful than ones which use actually horror to scare. I’d not heard of this book before your review, and not read McEwan yet, but what you’ve written is interesting. My plan was to start with Atonement, but you saying you disliked it the most makes me wonder if I ought to rethink!

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[…] The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan “McEwen does something to me similar to Japanese horror films, he scares me without really showing me anything scary. It is the anticipation, noticing that all is not well, and the subtle character interactions; you do not need blood and gore with an author who can scare you with mere words. His characters are subtly creepy, like many dysfunctional people their oddities are slowly disclosed the more the protagonists are trusted or needed.” […]

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