Spare, detached prose adds to the tension in McEwan’s enigmatic narrative. The question remains – just why did Colin and Mary return to the apartment they knew was fraught with danger?
In the unnamed Venice, the beautiful couple holiday. But this is no carefree period of desperate sightseeing and gastronomic pleasures.
For the two, together for seven years, it is an insular experience: sleeping late, talking, arguing, making love, spending only short periods away from the security of the hotel room. It is on one such occasion, leaving the hotel late, lost in the myriad of the city’s side streets, discovering restaurants closed, that they stumble across the charismatic Robert. It is a meeting that alters their futures and their destinies.
From the outset, there is a sense of foreboding. Colin and Mary knew each other as much as themselves, and their intimacy, rather like too many suitcases, was a matter of personal concern. They appear bored. And along comes Robert. No matter how threatening, no matter how much they do not want to see him (and, later, his overtly submissive wife, Caroline), opposites somehow attract. Mary and Colin are hooked and are drawn into his power and obsessions.
The Comfort of Strangers is a beautifully written (second) novel. But it is also a disturbing and chilling one. Sensibly, it is short (120 pages), stripped of description, emotive in unnerving suggestion.
Shortlisted for the 1981 Booker Prize, it lost out to Salman Rushdie and Midnight’s Children.