I have had a mixed relationship with Ian McEwan's novels. There are those that I loved (Atonement, Enduring Love), those I quite liked (On Chesil Beach) and those I didn't like much at all (Saturday and Amsterdam). It was the size of this one that first caught my attention, and that brought me to read it now. A nicely sized 100 pages. There was also the alluring cover, causing me to buy it in Oxfam some time ago. I wanted something quick to read and this was perfect.
Colin and Mary are on holiday in Venice. They are not married but have been partners for several years and their relationship has become antagonistic. Disagreeing has become a habit and they no longer compliment each others mood. They misread each other frequently and become easily offended for the slightest reason. They had hoped that the holiday would bring them closer, but they are following the same patterns, and it is their stubborn antagonism that gets them lost one night, in the many confusing alleyways of Venice. They are rescued by Robert, an enigmatic Italian businessman, who takes them to his bar and tells them stories of his life. They do not realise that their lives will never be the same, as they are unwillingly sucked into his disturbing world, and it makes them re-examine their relationship with each other.
The tension builds from the start, as they snipe at each other on the deserted back streets away from the crowds. You long for them to find where they are, yet even when they are in the middle of St Mark's Square there is no relief from the feeling that something is wrong.
I have always found McEwan's descriptions of couple psychology fascinating and he does not disappoint here. Part of the tension is their own with each other, which then manifests into an external situation, forcing them to examine where they are and reunite. It is the minutiae of their relationship that pushes this story forward with quite a pace.
I was quite shocked as the true intentions of their hosts are made apparent, and the last part provides exciting reading. Worrying, creepy, with a heap of questions on each page, this is a full on thriller and leaves you with a tangible feeling of alienation which lasted after the last sentence was done.
I really enjoyed this book. It made me realise I don't read enough thrillers, and a lot of it is still vivid in my mind. A shifty, nasty little story, excellently atmospheric, with loads of writing technique and the mechanics of relationships to talk about, as well as what drives some peoples behaviour, making this a good one for your reading group.
You can check out this book on Ian McEwan's website.
There is an essay examining the use of Metaphor in The Comfort of Strangers if you wish to expand your opinions of the book.
There is also a film of this book with Rupert Everett, Christopher Walken and Natasha Richardson. I realised about half way through reading the book that I had seen it a long time ago and remember little about it. I will look out for it for comparison.