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October 19, 2010

The Comfort of Strangers

by Ian McEwan

At a mere 100 pages, even slower readers like myself can read this in one sitting. A dark tale of an English couple holidaying in a city which is unmistakably Venice, though it is never explicitly stated. McEwan nevertheless captures the mood of the city and the landmarks are instantly recognisable through his vivid description.

Colin and Mary are barely on speaking terms as the story begins, simply going through the motions and wondering aimlessly through the city and repeatedly getting lost. Though I imagine most would consider getting lost in Venice an adventure, it seems to be a source of irritation for the couple. One evening they bump into a stranger, Robert, who insists on taking them to a bar. They spend all evening there and because they are unable to find their way home, end up sleeping in the street. The next day, hungry and thirsty, they run into Robert again and, accepting responsibility for their night of sleeping rough, he takes them to his home.

Colin and Mary wake in the evening in a room in Robert’s house, only to find their clothes are missing. Mary ventures out and soon meets Caroline, Robert’s Canadian wife. Clearly, something is amiss – she admits to having watched Colin and Mary for half an hour while they slept. Caroline is also in some physical discomfort, the reason for which unfolds towards the tale’s macabre end. Colin and Mary spend the evening with Robert and Caroline, sharing a meal and browsing some of their belongings – which includes a kind of shrine to Robert’s father.

After leaving, Colin and Mary seem to rediscover each other, recapturing the passion they had for one another when they first met. For the next few days, they barely venture out of their hotel. When they finally do, they spend a long day at the beach and on the way back to the hotel are drawn back to Robert’s house. This is when the story reaches its climax and conclusion, which I shall not reveal here. Save to say it is a chilling end to a Venetian holiday…

James’ out-of-five star rating: ***

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