Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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The Comfort Of Strangers – Ian McEwan – A Review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 17, 2009

It is normally said of doctors that in their journey to becoming what they are, they have a mandatory quota of patients for sacrifice before the God of “Professional Competence”. Looks like writers too follow this path. In the case of a writer’s journey it is the valuable readers time that gets mounted on the sacrificial altar. Why do I say this? Over the weekend I read an Ian McEwan‘s earlier novel viz. “The Comfort Of Strangers”  and felt it was an effort  and time misspent. Without a doubt McEwan is a favourite writer of mine and I consider him to be one of the best today. Yet I could not get to see anything worthy of an elevated read in this book of his.

The book is set in an unnamed but popular tourist city in which Colin and Mary are spending their holidays. Mary is married with two children but estranged from her husband and Colin is her lover. During their time in the city they meet up with a bizarre couple – Robert and Caroline. Robert spent a significant part of his childhood in England and is the son of a diplomat. He grows up in a utterly male dominated family in which women are treated as second rate subjects. These ethos get reflected in his relationship with Caroline whom he treats with utter contempt. Added to this is the sexual perversity of their relationship which adds an ineluctable degree of horror. Robert and Caroline have reached a stage of perversity where the joy in physical relationship goes beyond infliction of pain and tends towards derving satisfaction in killing and death. It is at this stage in their relationship that Robert and Caroline meet the attractive Colin and Mary. Robert uses his trademark forcefulness and hints of violence in subjugating their new found friends. In the process Colin is killed by Robert for the satisfaction of Caroline with Mary as the drugged witness to this murder. Prior to the killing, Caroline does explain to Mary in fair amount of detail their motivation which is never revealed to the reader. But it is too late: for the explanation is immediately followed by the murder of Colin. Both Robert and Caroline escape and Mary is left distraught. That in sum the plot of the book

While McEwan does a brilliant job in building an atmosphere of macabre, alarm and the impending disaster, this entire verbal effort becomes effective only when the reader on his part is willing to very generously suspend her disbelief. That to me is definitely not a sign of an elevated writing and more often than not it leads to an unenjoyable reading experience. Viewed from this angle “The Comfort Of Strangers” is a very poor read despite my admiration for McEwan as a writer of very evolved capabilities. One thing is for certain: I would not recommend this book of McEwan to anyone who wants to get introduced to his oeuvre –  for there are gems of his which are worth expending a reader’s valuable time, money and effort. I would recommend this book to only those readers  of McEwan who are academically curious to understand his trajectory in maturing as a writer.

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