An unborn baby waits to be born. In the cramped confines of his mother’s womb, just weeks before his due date, an extraordinarily educated and eloquent little one is having a rough time of it. He muses about the bitter, conflict-ridden world he is soon to enter, he lists the reasons to be optimistic about the twenty-first century, he gets a good deal closer to his mother’s sordid sexual activities than anyone would care to (don’t go there, too much information).
But most horrifically of all, he overhears his mother and her brother-in-law-turned-lover plotting the dastardly murder of the baby’s father. In the space of a short, tightly-constructed novel, McEwan gives the reader yet another reworking of a Shakespeare play, this time Hamlet. Trudy and Claude (get it?) plot to poison Trudy’s estranged but apparently adoring husband, John Cairncross. There are repeated references to famous Shakespearean quotations and even a description of a preferable form of poisoning than the one they chose, involving dropping the toxin into the ear, just in case any reader has failed to notice the literary parallel so late in the story.
Depending upon one’s angle, Nutshell is either a devastating satire of modern bourgeois London life or a particularly grotesque product of it. Unlike the original Hamlet, the motive for the murder of a kindly poet is to grab his one lucrative asset—a posh if delipidated house worth millions—the would-be murderess is a bored, lazy podcast addict who thinks nothing of boozing her way through the final weeks of her pregnancy, the man she has fallen for is a tedious middle class encyclopaedia of clichés who happens to be good in the bedroom department.
Even the instrument of murder feels horribly appropriate to the North London setting: a smoothie used to hide the taste of the anti-freeze. The hapless baby himself shows a detailed knowledge of fine wines, reveals moments of snobbery and appears already to have fallen into postmordernist cynicism regarding religion. About terrorist attacks, we are told: “It wasn’t hatred that killed the innocents but faith, that famished ghost, still revered, even in the mildest quarters. Long ago, someone pronounced groundless certainty a virtue. Now the politest people say it is … Europe’s most virtuous spectre, religion and, when it faltered, godless utopias bursting with scientific proofs, together they scorched the earth form the tenth to the twentieth centuries.” Goodness, the wonders of modern gynaecology, that it was possible for our unborn protagonist to read Richard Dawkins in utero—or possibly he heard those anti-theistic dulcet tones on yet another of his mother’s podcasts.
The murder plot itself is meticulously researched and horribly compelling to read. Likewise, the unravelling of Trudy and Claude’s hideous union is entirely psychologically plausible given the weight of guilt they both share. Nor is the story without its moments of insightful social comment and wicked satire. The female police officer with her “mild cockney” quickly establishes her authority over Trudy’s “expensively constrained vowels”, reflecting the changes in British class structures during the second half of the twentieth century. Earlier in the narrative, the protagonist imagines his future at university: “I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gambolling puppies. Ah, the intellectual life! I may need advance warning if upsetting books or ideas threaten my very being by coming too close, breathing on my face, my brain, like unwholesome dogs.” The mockery of the contemporary obsession with safe spaces and trigger warnings is acerbically rammed home and impossible not to enjoy, even if the reader is left with the impression that McEwan has certainly fallen foul of such censorship and is settling a score.
If aspects of the social setting feel grotesquely believable, the characters themselves vacillate between vivid and ludicrous—and I do not mean the fetal philosopher who guides us through the story. Both John and Claude are flesh-and-blood characters; the first a big-hearted eccentric poet who would be interesting to speak to for about five minutes before his obsession with iambs became insufferable; the other a dull, shallow materialist dealing in banalities. At the same time, none of the characters are convincingly the right age. The implication is that the men are in their thirties, the main characters are all supposed to be members of my generation but the men in particular felt much more of McEwan’s vintage, late middle age and a little adrift in the modern world.
But then, the unborn baby felt so very like McEwan in amniotic disguise, commenting on a world he both despises and represents, that the dated personas of the other characters should hardly have come as a surprise.
Nutshell is a book worth reading purely for the unusual narrative perspective and its flashes of stunning prose but it is worth taking an anti-emetic beforehand. McEwan is a master craftsman at the top of his game but he is a craftsman so obsessed with the ickiness of modern living that reading his books can feel at times like wading through an open sewer. The novel’s noted satirical brilliance has its moments but never quite makes up for the book’s deficiencies. Ultimately, there is only so far a novel can satirise Britain’s chattering classes when the author comes across as one of its card-carrying members.
Nutshell: A Novel
by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese; September 2016
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