Review of Nutshell by Ian McEwan: comico-erotic Hamlet

A fan of Ian McEwan like me? Then you’ll like Nutshell, a psychologically dense novel of Hamlet-ian scope. This book is, in my view, a return to McEwan’s former storytelling brilliance (after Solar and Sweet Tooth) because he does what he does best – explore the emotional crevices between love and devotion, love and hate, love and sex, love and morality, love and virtue.

The thriller charged plot is narrated by a wittily introspective foetus, whose vast, worldly knowledge – from politics in the Middle East to climate change, as well as obscure topics like ‘maggot farming in Utah’ –  was gained through podcast osmosis. The mother is an avid podcaster. The foetal voice is a central conceit that works for me because I’ve often been amazed at how all knowingly Buddha-like newborns can seem, as though they’re tethered to a universal truth and untouched by mere human concerns. Until of course, they are brought down to earth via inevitable socialisation.

First chapter, first page, first sentence is this. ‘So here I am, upside down in a woman.’ This in a nutshell, includes all of us in these McEwanesque struggles of love, for every person on earth today has experienced the womb and when out of the womb, many have wondered just what goes on in that space, a kind of pre-birth watery grave. After all, confinement in the womb is perhaps the only experience all humans share, besides death. More importantly, this confinement makes us totally dependent, and it is where unconditional love, especially for our mothers is born. ‘And I love her – how could I not?’ asks the foetus plaintively.

And this is why I’m totally buying into McEwan’s departure from his usual realism.

For if promises of what comes after we die is not enough to inform how we act in this life, then can knowledge of what might exist before life? Can a foetus’ thoughts, desires, aspirations and dreams help us rewrite the narratives of our lives?

I’m not sure McEwan answers this, but his nod to Hamlet is suggestive.  The foetus’ mother Trudy and her lover Claude’s pact to murder John, Trudy’s husband and Claude’s brother, implicates those of us who live lives full of deceit, greed (there’s a multi million pound London town house up for grabs), ignorance (Claude is ignobly vacuous) and most of all disregard for others (Trudy, Claude and John rarely show concern for the foetus). What kind of rotten state are we bequeathing to the next generation?

In one comico-tragic scene, the narrator/foetus is so distressed by what it can hear through mother’s skin that suicide by umbilical cord strangulation is contemplated, though the attempt ends in failure. The foetus cannot die by its own hand because ‘to kill the brain is to kill the will to kill the brain. As so on as I start of fade, my fists go limp and life returns.’ The foetus’s sole purpose is ‘to become’, but is it inevitable that the foetus will ‘become’ to avenge the father by killing the uncle? Is the foetus a tragic hero in the making?

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by divulging that we never really find out what kind of human the foetus grows up to be, but Nutshell’s story line forces me to think of big questions about the power of love and love gone wrong.

John, the foetus’ cuckolded father is a hopelessly romantic poet, whose love and devotion to Trudy remains unwavering, despite the fact that Trudy grows to despise his devotion, while confusing her lover Claude’s virulent sex drive for love.  Webs of love such as this that bind and destroy are explored in Nutshell, though the emotional terrain is not as nuanced or complicated as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Also unlike Hamlet, there is comico-erotic ickyness in Nutshell, which is probably worth mentioning for its chuckleworthiness. The foetus’ mother and her lover’s sex scenes are often urgent, sometimes violent, but mostly silly according to foetal narration: ‘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.’

These delightful scenes and the undeniable eloquence of the McEwan craft makes Nutshell an enjoyable albeit short read.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan; Publisher: Jonathan Cape; September, 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.