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Ian McEwan, Nutshell (#bookreview)

May 31, 2017

Ian McEwan, NutshellLike Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton, which I reviewed recently, Ian McEwan’s Nutshell has a narrator who won’t appeal to those who don’t like devices like skeletons in cupboards or babies in wombs. However, repeating what I said in my review of Bird’s book, it all depends on the writer’s skill, and McEwan, like Bird, is a skilful writer. Consequently, when the novel opened with “So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for”, I relegated my disbelief to the pillion and set off for the ride.

As you’ll have guessed from that opening quote (if you didn’t already know), our narrator is a foetus. In my experience, McEwan writes strong, attention-grabbing first chapters, and Nutshell delivers here too. Our foetus-narrator, close to being born, is forced to be party to, or at least cognisant of, a plot concocted by his mother, Trudy, and uncle, Claude, to kill his father. Ring any bells? Yes, he (and it is a “he”) is a Hamlet in the wings. This is a clever modern riff on Hamlet, exploring many of the same issues, such as revenge, action versus inaction, corruption. It’s also a commentary on what we could grandly call the modern condition – on our world which is “too complicated and dangerous for our quarrelsome natures to manage”.

SORT OF SPOILER (so miss this paragraph if you wish)

If you know your Hamlet what I say next won’t be a spoiler, and if you don’t know your Hamlet, the part I’m giving away happens slap-bang in the middle of the book, hence is not, I’d suggest, a spoiler? So, with that fair warning, here goes. Nutshell is a tight, murder-mystery. For the first half of the book, the question is “will they do it?”, while in the second half, it’s “will they get away with it?” We are privy to most of the plotting and planning because our foetus goes, of course, wherever his mother does. However, this is as much an ideas-driven book as a plot-driven one so, I’m going to move onto some of the ideas the novel teases out.

McEwan is clear about what he sees as the “rotten state” (one of the many allusions in the novel to Hamlet) the world is in. There are references to world powers out of control. Europe  is “in existential crisis, fractious and weak”, while China, “too big for friends or counsel” is “cynically probing its neighbours’ shores”. “Muslim-majority countries” are “plagued by religious puritanism” and “foe-of-convenience” America, now “barely the hope of the world” is “guilty of torture”. There’s also the nuclear threat, climate change “driving millions from their homes”, the “urinous tsunami of the burgeoning old”, and our increasing loss of liberty in the service of security. For our foetus, though,

Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions. We excite ourselves with dark thoughts in plays, poems, novels, movies. And now in commentaries. Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived.

It’s an attitude I like – and is what makes Nutshell not the bleak book it could be.

How does McEwan get away with all this?

The book, though, is not without its awkwardness. Sometimes the “rants” are a little too much, providing a virtual grab-bag of the world’s ills, from the loss of the Enlightenment’s rationality to the threat of North Korea. And sometimes our foetus-narrator is a little too knowing. Most of the time, McEwan makes clear why his narrator knows what he knows, including the limits to his knowledge, but sometimes our imaginations are stretched just a little too far. This is a very-knowing, very smart, highly articulate foetus, one who is not above giving his mother a kick:

In the middle of a long, quiet night I might give my mother a sharp kick. She’ll wake, become insomniac, reach for the radio. Cruel sport, I know, but we are better informed by the morning.

It is his “one morsel of agency” (and he uses it, giving, perhaps, Hamlet a lesson!) It is through these radio talks that our foetus learns most of what he knows about the world. Overall, McEwan maintained the conceit well, and I enjoyed the foetus-narrator’s view on the world he expects soon to join. Fortunately, my disbelief stayed on the pillion!

Besides this, the book is fun to read. There are allusions galore – not only to Hamlet but to a wide range of literary works. I would have missed many but I enjoyed spotting others, such as Jane Austen’s “two inches of ivory”, Julian Barnes’ “sense of an ending” and of course Hamlet’s “rotten state” and “a piece of work”. There is probably a bit of McEwan showing off here – flexing his literary credentials – but spotting allusions gave me little fillips of pleasure! There are also many funny scenes, including several involving descriptions of the lovemaking of the adulterous schemers:

I brace myself against the uterine walls. This turbulence would shake the wings off a Boeing. My mother goads her lover, whips him on with her fairground shrieks. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence, with the teeming cream of his banality.

The question of course has to be asked: why choose such a narrator? I’m sure there’s more than one answer to this question. I have no idea what McEwan has said so I could be way off here, but early on our narrator describes himself as “an innocent”, “a free spirit”, a “blank slate”, albeit becoming less blank by the day. Is he the perfect naive (but certainly not unreliable) narrator, able to comment, “unburdened by allegiances and obligations” on the murky world, or is McEwan suggesting there’s no such thing as innocence? Or, is his function to answer that question of whether we should bring children into the world. In the end, I think that McEwan’s message – or one of them anyhow – is that the world is worth hanging around for. It is “Beautiful. Loving. Murderous”, like Trudy, and our foetus wants to live it, hoping he will find meaning. An engaging read.

Ian McEwan
Nutshell
London: Vintage, 2016
ISBN: 9781473547131 (ePub)

(A reading group read)

27 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2017 1:38 am

    Nutshell is a fun novel – the first of McEwan’s I’ve enjoyed in several books. 🙂 I’m not intimate with Hamlet but we’re acquainted so that was the added dimension. I don’t know how McEwan got away with it either but I think part of it was that the fetus was so sympathetic, likable.

    • June 1, 2017 8:11 am

      Yes good point Bekah. He is engaging, I agree, though one of my friends for tired of his wine talk! I haven’t read his last couple. I think the last I read was Solar and I enjoyed this way more than that. Or was it On Chesil Beach? I can’t recollect the order now. I’d put On Chesil Beach ahead of this but Solar behind!

  2. June 1, 2017 4:01 am

    I went through a Mcewan phase some years ago. I don’t think I’d care for the-baby-in-the-womb device

    • June 1, 2017 8:14 am

      No, Guy, you are one of the readers I thought of in my opening sentence! I enjoy McEwan but I don’t read all of his. This was a reading group choice. I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise but I’m not at all disappointed that I did.

  3. carmelbird permalink
    June 1, 2017 10:28 am

    Ghosts and skeletons and insects and cats and even babies have sometimes delivered readers the story, but ‘Nutshell’ is quite rare in its employment of the foetus with its sprightly wit and command of language. I loved it. I think that when a writer offers readers such a point of view, the writer is giving the readers a chance to slip into the imaginations they might have enjoyed as a child, children’s books being the natural home of the unusual narrator and character.

    • June 1, 2017 10:40 am

      That’s a lovely way of describing it Carmel. I agree. I’m always interested to give other perspectives a go. I think it can be huge fun, or, at least fascinating. It wakes me up, makes me think about voice and perspective. And I usually imagine the fun the author had in imagining and writing the character, in working out we hat would or wouldn’t work.

  4. June 1, 2017 11:43 am

    Oh I am a huge fan of McEwan. Some people can do ‘clever’ and get away with it. In anyone else’s hands, I’d probably not want to read what a foetus had to say but I’ll search out a copy of this one straight away. McEwan is so clever, he can snatch the breath from my lungs sometimes with a single sentence.

    • June 1, 2017 12:20 pm

      Exactly, Karenlee. In the hands of good writers these different voices can really add something special. There’s more I wanted to say about the resolution and this character – clever, funny – but that would have been a spoiler. I think you’ll enjoy this.

  5. June 1, 2017 12:13 pm

    Having had some hit-and-miss experiences with McEwan, and having read some loved/hated it reviews, I have put this one on my list to watch out for at the library, but not to bother reserving it or buying it.

    • June 1, 2017 12:26 pm

      Fair enough Lisa. This was my reading group read so I bought it on my kindle. BTW There’s a new function that keeps your place if you want to flip back (or forward) some pages in the middle of your reading. Anyhow, I can’t tell if you’d like this or not but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Short and tight, and clearly by an author engaged with the current world politics.

      • June 1, 2017 2:07 pm

        Ooh, I wonder if there are automatic updates on my Kindle Paperwhite…

        • June 1, 2017 2:24 pm

          You might as well check. I did find it useful. I read this using the kindle app on my iPad not, this time, on my actual kindle. Sometimes I flip between the two but this was short and quick and I ended up staying with the iPad.

  6. June 1, 2017 2:07 pm

    I listened to this book recently after downloading it from the local library catalogue. Your review captures the essence well, and you are right too about it being an enjoyable read once you suspend disbelief. There was quite a bit of melodrama in it but the lyrical language and literary references were a delight. Like you, I am glad I took the plunge.

    • June 1, 2017 2:26 pm

      Oh thanks JML for joining in. Welcome. I’m glad you felt I captured the essence, as I felt a bit unsure. Sometimes what I have in my head doesn’t quite come out the same on paper.

      • ian darling permalink
        June 1, 2017 7:26 pm

        Ian McEwan’s early short stories had a rancid power all of there own but I haven’t always got on so well with his novels that sometimes struggle a little to sustain themselves. I will give this a go.

  7. June 1, 2017 10:46 pm

    I’m amazed that you had fun with this one. It all fell flat for me, unlike his previous novels.

    • June 2, 2017 8:33 am

      Is this because you didn’t like the narrator Jeanne? You’ve probably posted on it and I’ve forgotten, so will come over and check.

  8. June 2, 2017 5:53 am

    Or maybe he is trying to answer, to be, or not to be? 😉 I have to give you kudos for rescuing this book from the category I’ve labeled ridiculous. I have absolutely no plan to ever read it, but I am glad to know it doesn’t belong to the mental pile on which I tossed it. I am not a big McEwan fan, and even famous literary writers aren’t above silly stinkers. I do wonder though, what the heck he was thinking when he came up with the premise.

    • June 2, 2017 11:48 am

      Haha Stefanie, I’m glad I’ve done that at least! I need to find an interview on this book as I think he’s done some. I just haven’t had time to look and then, what’s more, listen. But I think there could be many answers to that question including some I had a go at in my post. To have an unborn Hamlet, as it were, consider the dastardly plot opens up the possibilities, including for irony. A foetus, an unborn person, had the perfect excuse (or dies he) for not acting for a start. Part of me wishes I’d written my whole post on the permutations of this choice of his. But another reason too, though I don’t imagine it would be the main reason, would be the challenge of creating and sustaining such a character. I can imagine that would be fun for the imagination.

      • June 3, 2017 2:12 am

        It does present all sorts of interesting possibilities and even commentary in regards to Hamlet. And you are right, for a writer like McEwan, creating and sustaining such a character probably presented a great fun challenge for him. That he managed as much success as he did is a tribute to his skill as a writer, even if I’m not a fan 🙂

        • June 3, 2017 10:20 am

          Yes it does, Stefanie, that’s why I tend not to have preconceived notions about narrators. They can open the mind. Funny how I don’t read much fantasy or sci-fi, but I’m not immediately put off by fanciful narrators! As for McEwan, I’ve loved a few of his books, Enduring love, Atonement, On Chesil Beach, that I’m always ready to give him a go, but I don’t rush to read every book and have missed the previous two.

  9. July 11, 2017 8:24 pm

    Sometimes I flip between the two but this was short and quick and I ended up staying with the iPad. As for McEwan, I’ve loved a few of his books, Enduring love, Atonement, On Chesil Beach, that I’m always ready to give him a go, but I don’t rush to read every book and have missed the previous two.

    • July 12, 2017 2:55 am

      Thanks Harold, you sound very much like me re McEwan. And I found this pretty easy to read on the iPad too.

  10. July 17, 2017 9:00 am

    Excellent review. I enjoyed this book myself.

  11. July 28, 2017 8:29 pm

    That he managed as much success as he did is a tribute to his skill as a writer, even if I’m not a fan 🙂 You’ve probably posted on it and I’ve forgotten, so will come over and check.

    • July 29, 2017 11:34 am

      Yes, I have Timothy. I agree it’s a tribute. I’m a bit of a fan, though haven’t read all his works, or loved all I’ve read.

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