I’m taking what might be a bit of a risk with the choice for October’s Book of the Month, the subject matter of which is not only difficult but considered by some as genuinely disturbing. I began reading The Comfort of Strangers on its release in 1981: the fact I couldn’t finish it is one of the compelling reasons why the narrative has been returned to and summarily readdressed with a fresh mindset. The best fiction is not necessarily that which entertains or distracts. Having the ability to make a reader think, or to travel outside their comfort zones is perhaps one of the most positive and life-changing qualities the written word possesses. Ian McEwan’s output has achieved this since those early works in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and continues to do so, even as time has mellowed both man and outlook.
McEwan was born in Aldershot in 1948 yet grew up in Asia, Germany and North Africa, wherever his father was stationed as an Army officer. Returning to the UK in his early teens he was educated at Woolverstone Hall School, followed by degrees first at the University of Sussex and subsequently at UEA in Norwich. His first book of short stories was published in 1975. Both The Comfort of Strangers and the novella The Cement Garden written during this early period were quickly adapted into film screenplays. However, the novel that won him the 1987 Whitbread Prize, The Child in Time, has only very recently been adapted for the small screen, taking thirty years to make the transition.
McEwan’s writing career between 1975 and 1987 is known as the Ian Macabre period: subject matters are disturbing and challenging, often ignoring and completely trampling over borders of acceptable behaviour. However, the Whitbread Prize marks a distinct change in tone: moral ambiguity and social challenge remain, but the subject matters become far more palatable. His 1983 screenplay for Channel 4, The Ploughman’s Lunch, is a savage indictment of the media world during the Falklands War and hints of his more political works to come. It was however with works which explored the subtleties and shortcomings of human relationships where McEwan began to excel, continuing to demand much from his readers.
Of these, there are stand out choices: Enduring Love is a brutally honest assessment of how fate can alter existence and how obsession (plus mental illness) will drive individuals to extraordinary actions. Atonement considers how an untruth can drastically alter the entire path of many lives and is probably the best known of McEwan’s work, due in part to the 2007 film adaptation which starred Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Both these novels, as is the case with all those that both follow and precede, hold an almost distorted lens to the frailties of human beings, and the means by which they rationalise their versions of ‘the world around them’ in order to try and understand existence.
In his later works however has come a far more politically active strand of narrative, including reflections on global warming, the right to die and the blurring of boundaries between artistic integrity and government propaganda. His works continue to be optioned for small screen and movie adaptations: On Chesil Beach and The Children’s Act have both been transferred to the big screen and were shown at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, with the semi-autobiographical novel Sweet Tooth in development from the same company who produced Atonement.
This is a man who is no stranger to controversy in his personal life: married twice, part of a fairly acrimonious divorce including a custody battle, whilst also discovering in 2002 he had a brother given up for adoption during World War Two. He’s also been a very vocal commentator on both global warming and the state of the UK post Brexit-vote: no stranger to courting political controversy over his opinions or indeed the subjects he tackles, this traditional Labour supporter continues to mentally challenge both listener and reader when discussing a wide range of different subjects.
It is quite easy to present a biography of McEwan the man, far harder to sum up the depth of his work, and how it is often a slap to the face of far tamer approaches to controversial subject matters. Violence and sexual deviation are commonplace, yet at the same time, there is an intellectual depth and breadth of assessment which makes these variations utterly acceptable in the contexts of their particular narratives. When one looks at his more cerebral offerings, inevitably one common thread persists: the protagonists’ engagement with their version of the ‘modern’ world, and meaning of existence within it.
The world painted in The Comfort of Strangers is less to do with the city in which is it set and far more to do with the issues and desires of the characters: even in a novel such as Atonement where the Second World War becomes an important player in proceedings, it never overshadows the very human responses and actions of McEwan’s players. In fact, one almost feels that the backgrounds to his work are of secondary importance. However, the backdrops painted are a perfect combination of bigger picture and precise detail: drawing a reader in before shocking them with what they are told.
McEwan is not an easy read, or often a comfortable watch. That makes for searing, engaging narratives and important points presented. As readers, stories are often the places to which we escape in difficult times, yet when presented with concepts that cannot be easily rationalised, this can make for uncomfortable sensations. It has taken me three decades to return to an author whose ideas I’m now far more willing to embrace and explore: that long not because of him, of course, but me. Being willing to accept the challenging is often nothing to do with the subject matter presented, and everything about the mentality of your readership.
It is typical for us as human beings to only cope with so much in daily life: when reality presents events which are difficult to understand, immersing oneself in novels with challenging subject matters may not seem like relaxation at all. However, when you are the one dictating how such content is consumed, there are obvious benefits. It allows an opportunity to take back a notion of control, to dispassionately use a fictional narrative as a ‘what if’ situation for individual thoughts and feelings. Most importantly, as the story being read is not real, there’s the ability to treat it as such and not become overwhelmed by circumstance.
Books are not always presented as escapist entertainment, as is the case with all forms of media for the same purpose. The best experiences are often those that leave us uncomfortable, questioning the reasoning behind their production. As modern society becomes more and more indignant over the content of media, often without ever having consumed it for themselves, to begin with anything that challenges traditional comfort zones and forces a reader out of them is never going to be a bad thing.
It is up to us as readers to learn how to take contentious subject matters and consume them in a way which not only is comfortable but allows us to attack the narratives on our own terms. For that, there are tools that can be utilised, the ability to become more objective and less judgemental, and to look inside ourselves to understand why such things are possible. A blind acceptance of the World in our own image is not only dangerous, but ultimately selfish behaviour, and yet this is what happens with frightening regularity. This is played out in McEwan’s narratives too, often with fatal consequences for the characters involved.
The truth, of course, is that there is a World of diversity and horror that most of us choose to ignore, often for the sake of our own sanity. McEwan’s work flowers in the places between, where reality overlaps with fiction: worlds we recognise and that have definite ties to our own existence, but yet are often alien and frightening. He forces the reader to think of an ‘alternate’ version of reality where people act as us, but often seem like a version of humanity that makes no sense. It is this abstraction from realism that can allow the reader the means to step back and grasp the bigger themes at play, and how they relate to them… or indeed not.
It has taken over three decades for me to find the means to connect with McEwan’s style and presentation, and I’m returning with caution to narratives that were abandoned in the past with fresh, more inquiring eyes. His body of work is impressive, substantive and ultimately very satisfying, and if you enjoy The Comfort of Strangers it is simply a stepping stone into a far more complex world of novels and adaptations. I urge you to join me on this journey, and to expand your mind to the places just beyond the reach of your vision.
What can be seen there can be both surprising and significant.