There are no doubt piles upon piles of books that make you want to travel, and there’s probably no shortage of books that make you want to visit Venice in particular. Then there’s Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, the book that makes you dread just the thought of Venice. Or really any travelling. After finishing this book, you will want to stay home forever, and lock all the doors to keep the outside world and its evils at bay.
Mary and Colin encounter those evils from the mundane (sore feet, crowded beaches, rude waitstaff) to the baroque — the titular strangers, Robert, his stories, and the life he lives with his wife Caroline. After already spending some time in the sinking city, they walk out one evening in search of a restaurant, and into a nightmare. They get lost in the maze of canals and back alleys and that’s when they meet Robert who takes them to his bar. What follows is a somewhat ludicrous tale of violence and perversion.
A slim volume at about 130 pages, The Comfort of Strangers was nonetheless a chore for me to read. McEwan bogs the narrative down with endless descriptions everyday life, little street dramas and supposedly realistic details of scenery. All this struck me as sleigh of hand, smoke and mirrors to obscure the fact that when you get right down to it, the story itself doesn’t make that much sense. And it’s probably not supposed to. Like the writer’s first novel, Cement Garden, this is a nightmare. Highlighting the sense of unreal is the fact that McEwan never actually mentions any real world place names once during the novel. The words Venice, Lido, Piazza San Marco etc. never make an appearance.
As a reading experience, this wasn’t a pleasant one, but I do have to admire McEwan’s skill at creating the atmosphere of dread, and in turning the magnifying glass at interpersonal relationships in such detail, grotesque as the view often is.