Book review: Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan PIC: Greg Macvean
Ian McEwan PIC: Greg Macvean
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As an elevator pitch, Nutshell really doesn’t have much going for it: “So, it’s a reworking of Hamlet, narrated by a foetus, attempting to find a way to either prevent or avenge his father’s murder.” Yet, somehow, Ian McEwan’s 17th book for the most part works, and in parts is the best of his oeuvre, in my opinion, since Enduring Love back in 1997.

The reader does have to suspend disbelief the whole time. Our unnamed narrator is a wonderful eavesdropper, and his mother’s addiction to podcasts and radio have furnished him with a wide spectrum of interests and opinions. Although he finds the idea of colour problematic – “when I hear ‘blue’, which I’ve never seen, I imagine some kind of mental event that’s fairly close to ‘green’ – which I’ve never seen” – he is remarkably well versed in oenology, opining that the “misty grey bloom” of a Pouilly-Fumé would go remarkably well with harengs pommes à l’huile. Given that the wine will pass through the placenta and his mother has fortuitously listened to a 15-part series Know Your Wine, one can almost switch off the persistent nag of “come on, he has no language, no experience of the world and perhaps the briefest indication of a sense of self”.

But to the plot. Trudy, our narrator’s mother, is having an affair with Claude, a banal property developer, the brother of her husband, who is a noted poet and publisher. Together they are planning to murder him, in part to inherit the dilapidated but valuable Georgian London townhouse where she lives in moderate squalor. The unborn narrator pieces together the plot, and wonders what interventions if any he can make while “upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m for”.

If the title doesn’t alert the reader – “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams” – then the names, echoing Claudius and Gertrude, ought to do so. The text is peppered with little nods to the play: unweeded garden, solid flesh, the rest is silence, is not seems, and of course, right there on page two, to be, as the speaker reaches consciousness – he will later attempt self-slaughter as well. Stylistically the rest is classic McEwan, with a kind of metronome ticking between precise Latinate words and blunt Saxon monosyllables. This about-to-be baby sounds a lot like Ian McEwan in other novels, and not just in his syntax.

Like the 21st century version of McEwan, our narrator is terribly fond of pontificating. Climate change, Islam, geopolitics, refugees, the rise of identity politics and “safe spaces” in universities all come into his purview, despite not having any experience of weather, religion, voting, home, sexuality or speech, free or otherwise. In the strangest way, this actually works; perhaps because the child is genuinely interested, alarmed and exasperated about the world into which he will be born. It is certainly done with more wit and ingenuity than in the tiresome Solar or the sententious The Children Act.

But he also sounds like the ghoulish McEwan of the 20th century. This is undeniably a novel by the same author as The Cement Garden or The Innocent. There is a visceral edge and an eldritch stickiness to some of the prose. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls.” This is properly nasty in the way that McEwan used to be, and a far cry from the sentimentalism of, for example, the scene in Saturday when a rapist is deterred from his vile intent by a reading of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”.

The novel might have been stronger if McEwan had not kept reminding the reader how intrinsically unbelievable the whole conceit is – were it not for the constant nudges, it might be possible to let pass such improbabilities as the foetus knowing whether his mother was wearing silk or cotton underwear. Nevertheless, this absurd whole hangs together. In part it might be by repudiating its own pronouncements. “The Gothic has been reasonably banished,” thinks the narrator, “the witches have fled the heath, and materialism, so troubling to the soul, is all I have left.” This is Gothic, with all the mental reservations the genre requires.

It is also unsettlingly moving. The child – amazed by the world and afraid of it, disgusted by its own genetics (there is a brilliant riff on it being half its own uncle) and wondrous that it came about at all – is an elegiac creature more than anything. Its solution to its dilemma is achieved with a brilliance that is at least two-thirds the obvious inevitability. But let him come, as the play has it, the readiness is all.

This may mark a shift in McEwan’s career. After a decade of eloquent but irritating novels, he seems to have found a way to unite commentary and the shuddersome once again.

*Nutshell by Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape, £16.99