Like 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.
London: Vintage, 2016
ISBN: 9781473547131 (ePub)
(A reading group read)