The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan, published by Vintage, 1997
Ian McEwan’s second novel, The Comfort of Strangers, leaves one in ironic dis-comfort. First published in 1981, it unravels the tale of a fateful encounter between two couples: the regular holidayers Mary and Colin, and residents of the holiday spot, Robert and Caroline. What follows as a conventional progression of acquaintance between strangers is a gripping, sinister narrative that shocks the anticipating reader.
McEwan, within the span of a hundred odd pages, explores and explodes several beliefs and practices that are considered ‘normal’. Simultaneously, he unsettles us – the readers – by making us aware of certain habits that we unconsciously inculcate in ourselves. He first paints a perfectly believable – even popular – prototype of a couple who are tired in love. Stuck in a cycle of automatic responses and synced schedules, their vacation begins with a reflection of their strained selves: “They woke, simultaneously, and lay still on their separate beds. For reasons they could no longer define clearly, Colin and Mary were not on speaking terms.” However, with a certain edge to his language, McEwan also reminds us that this is a couple who love each other – perhaps a bit too much: “[T]hey knew one another much as they knew themselves, and their intimacy, rather like too many suitcases, was a matter of perpetual concern”.
Mary and Colin, like most young, holidaying couples, go on several walks, through alleys and lanes, exploring the city on their own. They discover new restaurants and engage in political debates and discussions on feminism. It is on one such occasion that they encounter Robert, share drinks with him, and on a consequent meeting, end up at his house, only to find themselves naked and missing their clothes, on waking up the next morning.
It is here that they meet Robert’s wife, Caroline. If Robert stood at what could be considered an ‘extreme’ edge of experience and expectations, then Caroline becomes another mould that fits in with his ideals; one who believes: “If you are in love with someone, you would even be prepared to let them kill you, if necessary.” Just when the passion between Mary and Colin is rekindled and in full blaze, slowly but surely, they become ensnared in Robert and Caroline’s dark past, hearing about their ‘perverse’ fetishes, before becoming the ultimate witnesses and victims of the same.
It is perhaps a given that every reader is a voyeur, privy to the lives of characters in literary works. Yet, when one encounters a set of double voyeurs who have overreached their obsession, it unsettles the voyeur within us. It also perhaps reminds us how blurred the line between seemingly harmless stalking and destructive obsession can really be. Besides subverting the notion of hospitality, McEwan seems to deliberately play with our very human and universal urge for knowing, our insatiable sense of curiosity. He purposely withholds details. We are not told in explicit terms where exactly Mary and Colin have gone on vacation: the abundance of water and the couple’s incomprehensibility of the dominant language spoken suggest it is Venice. What could be considered as an ultimate test of love becomes a test of trust not just between couples in relationships but within the human community in general. Who do we trust then?
Reading the novel in the twenty-first century – conditioned by the overwhelming presence of social media- one could be especially unsettled by the continuous threat to our notion of privacy. A particularly shocking scene in chapter nine, where we find multiple photographs of one of the characters displayed on the wall of the bedroom of another – a stranger – makes readers shudder, yet we, in our daily “virtual” life, are constantly flirting with this threat to ourselves: we no longer have to anticipate or even apprehend a Foucauldian panoptic vision of ourselves (like in the novel) – we have voluntarily offered ourselves to the gaze, knowing/ not knowing/ choosing to not know the risks involved. Now imagine stumbling across a series of photographs featuring you in a random stranger’s cell phone/computer. Embrace the dis-Comfort of Strangers.
– Adreja Mukherji