Nutshell is at once hilarious, witty, smart, and unbelievable.
You don’t want to go with it. There’s the little issue of logic and the unborn child’s well-developed sentence structure, vocabulary, insights about the nature of humanity, near-omniscience, well-developed palette and keen self-awareness.
But with McEwan’s silky prose? It. Just. Doesn’t. Matter.
Resistance is futile.
Our narrator is “witness” to the sad de-coupling of his mother and father. Trudy, with child, is in the middle of an active and ongoing extended fling with the vapid Claude, who happens to be the brother of Trudy’s husband John. Trudy and Claude have a plan to accelerate their relationship and it involves ending John’s life and, well, our narrator has opinions and preferences. He’s taken sides.
“Who is this Claude, this fraud who’s wormed in between my family and my hopes? I heard it once and took note: the dull-brained yokel. My full prospects are dimmed. His existence denies my rightful claims to a happy life in the care of both parents. Unless I devise a plan. He has entranced my mother and banished my father. His interests can’t be mind. He’ll crush me. Unless, unless, unless—a wisp of a word, ghostly token of altered fate, bleating little iamb of hope, it drifts across my thoughts like a floater in the vitreous humour of an eye. Mere hope.”
(Bleating little iamb, yes. Iamb. Just when your eye and cliché radar expect a bleating little lamb. Poetry plays a big role in the tapestry of Nutshell. John is a publisher and a poet and he has moved away from the dilapidated townhouse where Trudy remains to take up with a woman named Elodie who writes poems about owls.)
Our neonatal narrator (stole those two words from The Guardian) prefers to “remarry” mother and father “to unite my circumstances to my genome.” He thinks: “It’s in me alone that my parents forever mingle, sweetly, sourly, along separate sugar-phosphate backbones, the recipe for my essential self.”
So we have a narrator and a point of view but how will someone so perfectly unable to change the outcomes of the world out there be able to have an impact on fulfilling his needs? Hard to believe, but the ending is a thriller-tight and our pre-born narrator continues with his witty asides and daydreaming about all matter of human behavior even as he fights his way to, yes, freedom. Of sorts.
There are layers and layers to Nutshell, including ample references to Hamlet (Claude, Claudius; Trudy, Gertrude) and many other images that went straight over my head until pondering a few reviews.
I know, I know – it’s not supposed to work. I headed in (so to speak) with a great deal of cynicism. Oh sure, McEwan, what now?
Yeah, well, Nutshell is brilliant and brilliantly told. By the way, I listened to the audio version by Rory Kinnear and the performance is outstanding. I’d listen to it again just to listen to Kinnear utter the name Claude over and over. Clod but drawn-out and nasally and with that terribly British snark.
Previous review of McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.
Previous review of McEwan’s Solar.