Likely Stories: The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

Jan 17, 2019

A mysterious city, a peculiar stranger, and the stranger’s wife add up to a stunning tale.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

In an attempt to gather all the novels by Ian McEwan, I now lack only three.  What would have been the fourth, is now the exciting, mysterious, and shocking tale, The Comfort of Strangers.  At only 127 pages, it packs a terrific and unexpected climax.  McEwan has won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam, and in addition, every major prize from Europe and the UK.  He is my favorite for a Nobel Prize in Literature.

The story begins in a rather mundane manner.  McEwan writes, “Each afternoon, when the whole city beyond the dark green shutters of their hotel windows began to stir.  Colin and Mary were woken by the methodical chipping of steel tools against the iron barges which moored by the hotel café pontoon.  In the morning these rusting, pitted hulks, with no visible cargo or means of propulsion, would be gone; towards the end of each day, they reappeared, and their crews set to inexplicably with their mallets and chisels.  It was at this time, in the clouded, late afternoon heat, that customers began to gather on the pontoon to eat ice cream at the tin tables, and their voices too filled the darkened hotel room, rising and falling in waves of laughter and dissent, flooding the brief silences between each piercing blow of the hammers” (9).  While I recognized the expert diction of McEwan, something seemed unusual, compelling, and oddly ominous.

Mary and Colin are not married—Mary later admitted she never wanted to marry Collin—and they have a peculiar relationship.  Colin frequently walks a number of paces ahead of Mary, and he also crosses the street to head in a different direction without letting Mary know where he was headed.  On one walk Colin noted, “they should have brought the maps.  Without them they were certain to get lost” (20).  This unnamed resort city seemed mysterious in its own right.  Finally realizing they were lost, they began a brief quarrel over where they were. 

McEwan writes, Mary “pointed at a doorway several yards ahead and, as if summoned, a squat figure stepped out of the dark into a pool of street light and stood blocking their path” (25).  […]  “The man laughed and extended his hand.  ‘Are you tourists?’  he asked in self-consciously precise English, and beaming, answered himself.  ‘Yes, of course you are’” (25). // Mary stopped directly in front of him and said, ‘We’re looking for a place where we can get something to eat’” (25).

Robert, the stranger, takes Mary and Colin to a bar where they can eat.  Robert begins to tell the story of his life in great detail.  Ian writes, “‘All his life my father was a diplomat, and for many, many years we lived in London, in Knightsbridge.’ […] “‘Everybody was afraid of him.  My mother, my four sisters, even the ambassador was afraid of my father.  When he frowned, nobody could speak.  At the dining table you could not speak unless spoken to first by my father’” (31).  Colin and Mary seemed interested in his story, but when Robert takes a walk with Colin, the level of mystery rises a notch, with greater levels ahead.

The Comfort of Strangers is another of Ian McEwan’s taut and suspenseful novels.  If you have not experienced the world of McEwan, simply pick up any of his more than 20 novels.  5 Stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!