The comfort of strangers by Ian McEwan is labelled as a thriller, with mystery sprinkled in and described as the story of a couple who “meet a man with a disturbing story to tell” as they end up in his “fantasy of violence and obsession”.
Now, I have no objections to books which are gorry and explore the darker side of human behaviour. I thoroughly enjoy them and I think they give offer us an insight into the complexities of the human mind. I love reading a book which takes my imagination to the extremes and disturb my pretty little life.
When I read a phrase such as “fantasy of violence and obsession”, I expect one of those books. However, that’s not the case with this one.
I’d summarise it instead as: bored couple goes on vacation, get drawn in by someone who is obviously more interesting than they are, make some stupid decisions and nothing really exciting does happen.
That’s the plot in a nutshell, but it’s not even the worst thing about this book. I’ve read thousands of pages of books that I could summarise in a sentence and I still loved them to bits (see 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami).
In order for a story to be successful without that much of a plot, it needs to have strong characters and great narrative style. This one read to me like the first draft of a novel that achieves that.
The only character who has personality is the “mysterious” Robert, the stranger the couple meets when out on holiday. He has a bit of a back story that could be developed and really drawn out, but I guess McEwan wants us just to guess and assume how he ended up as violent and obsessive as he has, as he gives us an incident from Robert’s past which involves humiliation. Is the reader supposed to just accept that story has defined this man’s whole personality?
We find out nothing really relevant about the other three main characters, except the couple is kind of bored and kind of passionate and have their own fantasies (OH MY GOD, people have an erotic side to them that comes out when they’re in creepy, interesting situations with new people? I could have never thought of that.)
Robert’s wife is a shadow of an interesting character and has the backbone to be one, if only there’d be more story for her to shine. Also, there’s a stereotype regarding the crazy dark and beautiful extremely rich people who play out their fantasies (American Psycho style) that takes away from these people’s authenticity.
I’ve moaned enough, so let’s get to the positives and why this book isn’t a waste of time.
Ian McEwan can write beautifully. Disregarding the subject matter, this is a literary book and the turn of phrase flows and sets the scene perfectly. I felt throughout that I was in a psychological thriller and I was waiting for the big reveal that would blow my mind…which never came.
She sleepwalked from moment to moment, and whole months slipped by without memory, without bearing the faintest imprint of her conscious will.
This style alone will be enough to leave readers satisfied with this book, despite its lack of plot of any character development. Or maybe some will take away from this beautiful writing more substance than I did. Every room and every setting is described perfectly, to the last detail and, if you choose to, you might analyse them and find some truth and guidance there. However, as this book is supposed to be about violence and passion, there isn’t any nearly enough true description of those two anywhere to be found.
In addition, this book was written in 1981 and it hasn’t aged one day. It’s admirable to see a story which is as relevant today as it was 34 years ago and that’s part of why it deserves the title of literary fiction.
All in all, I enjoyed reading this book until I realised it had finished. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I thought it was a great start for something much better and could have been explored in many different ways, giving meaning to the main themes rather than just addressing them and leaving them to hang there in the air like big blobs of nothing.
Rating: | Big fat MEH