I’ve talked about Ian McEwan and my reading previously. I know some think he writes only one character (that being himself) and that the ever-present moral twist in his stories is predictable – but I’m okay with that. And Nutshell goes on my list of McEwan Worth Reading*.
Nutshell is a riff on Hamlet, told from the perspective of an unborn baby. The baby ‘listens in’ on his mother, the petulant, wine-and-podcast-loving Trudy; her lover, the boorish Claude; and occasionally his biological father, John, a poet with a skin condition. Note that Claude is John’s brother.
“Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.”
Trudy has dumped John, kicking him out of his dilapidated but valuable house. Planning to sell the house, Trudy and Claude hatch a plan to murder John.
The baby’s contempt for Claude is a highlight –
“Here is a man who whistles continually, not songs but TV jingles, ringtones, who brightens a morning with Nokia’s mockery of Tárrega. Whose repeated remarks are a witless, thrustless dribble, whose impoverished sentences die like motherless chicks, cheaply fading. Who washes his private parts at the basin where my mother washes her face. Who knows only clothes and cars.”
“To be tied to a man as vapid but sexually vigorous as Claude is a complex fate.”
There’s an obvious flaw in McEwan’s narrative, highlighted within the first few pages when our unborn narrator acknowledges that his understanding of what constitutes colour is merely an abstraction. Yet, pages later, is pondering his father’s penchant for poems featuring a “…trochaic trimeter” and social customs (among other things) –
“No child, still less a foetus, has ever mastered the art of small talk, or would ever want to. It’s an adult device, a covenant with boredom and deceit.”
Is an unborn baby as a narrator a silly gimmick? I was leaning toward ‘yes’ however McEwan proceeds to take the joke to such ridiculous lengths that I could only assume that McEwan had an enormous amount of fun writing this book.
So, do as I did and accept that while most unborn babies have no knowledge of anything beyond the womb (let alone Ulysses, property development, and wines from the Burgundy region), the star of Nutshell does – enjoy.
3/5 A crime novel with a difference.
The baby’s descriptions of Trudy’s drinking are stupendous (and deeply concerning, obviously) –
“After a piercing white, a Pinot Noir is a mother’s soothing hand. Oh, to be alive while such a grape exists! A blossom, a bouquet of peace and reason. No one seems to want to read aloud the label so I’m forced to make a guess, and hazard an Échézeaux Grand Cru. Put Claude’s penis or, less stressful, a gun to my head to name the domaine, I would blurt out la Romanée-Conti, for the spicy cassis and black cherry alone. The hint of violets and fine tannins suggest that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves, through a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009. But I’ll never know. As the brooding ensemble of flavours, formed at civilisation’s summit, makes its way to me, through me, I find myself, in the midst of horror, in reflective mood.”
The baby may have been enjoying a French Pinot but recently, I’ve been drinking a local from Gembrook Hill.
* My revised Order of McEwan:
- On Chesil Beach
- The Children Act
- …and then all the others if you can be bothered.