“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams” Hamlet
Nutshell by Ian McEwan is an unusual short novel with an intriguing premise. It is written in the first person from the point of view of a foetus. At eight and a half months old (if that is the correct way of phrasing it?) and soon to enter the world he has a one of a kind view on the feelings and actions of his mother. His mother, who he loves deeply but isn’t always sure he likes, is having an affair with his paternal uncle. The pair are plotting to murder his father. They are not exactly star crossed lovers, more a highly sexual and somewhat sinister pairing who spend their time drinking and going over the steps they will take to carry out this act. The unborn child seems to take up little of their thoughts or interest.
The unnamed narrator is exceptionally intelligent, having consumed information and knowledge through his mother. At times he goes off into analysing the modern world. There is a wonderful section that looks at liberalism, safe spaces, freedom of thought, the increasing censorship on University campuses and so on. Nutshell is in part a way for McEwan to address issues of the day indirectly. Well written and a speedy read at times it feels as though McEwan is using his unpoliticised protagonist to look at some of the absurdities of the modern world. Terrorism, the global markets and pop culture all get a look in.
Set in the middle of summer the atmosphere in the house is claustrophobic. Mess, dirt and clutter pile up in hallways. Laundry is never done and the kitchen is cased in filth. Trudy, the mother, spends her time sunbathing, listening to podcasts and drinking wine. Caught beneath the relentless gaze of the sun the household feels like it has been stopped in time. Once the father has been removed the pair hope to inherit the house and set themselves up for life. On one of the few times the foetus is mentioned it is in passing. He is something to be offloaded, passed on. Trapped inside the womb he hears everything but has no control over his fate. He can however see the obvious flaws in his mother’s plan and he often exhibits more wisdom than the adults. The title is reminiscent of a 1957 poem by former Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, The Newborn, which includes the lines “This morsel of man I’ve held – / What potency it has, / Though strengthless still and naked as / A nut unshelled!”. Celebrating the birth of a child this is a beautiful image that contrasts with the treatment of Nutshell’s protagonist.
The novel is littered with sex scenes that feel very uncomfortable. This seems to be one of the few activities that unify the pair however reading about it from the point of view of the narrator inside his mother is a strange experience. Claude is a dull and unpleasant man. It is difficult to see why Trudy would be so interested in him. McEwan is of course a very good writer and their relationship begins to make sense when one sees how cruel and vindictive Trudy can also be. Neither are very pleasant and this story would probably not work if it was told from another perspective because it would be too hard to empathise with the murderous duo. Unlike typical murder focused narratives here the reader is given the who, why and how from the off. The murder is clearly detailed and the reader follows each step towards cold blooded murder. It is interesting to be given an insight into the actions and thought processes behind this action.
Nutshell received positive reviews from the book club. Although this is our first Ian McEwan novel between us we have read his entire back catalogue. It is a unique novel and one wonders whether it was also created as a writing exercise to come up with something different that would allow the author to comment on world affairs without having to deal with comments sections and twitter. Coming in at only a few hundred pages this is one of McEwan’s quicker reads and it has a fluidity that some of his earlier novels lacked. If you are looking for something different this is worth a read.
Nutshell, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Cape, London, 2016.