Nutshell by Ian McEwan: A review

"God said, Let there be pain. And there was poetry. Eventually."
- from Nutshell

And eventually, luckily for us, there was Ian McEwan, a writer who routinely delivers such lyrical prose that a dedicated reader could weep for pure joy. In Nutshell, he's done it again.

How can one adequately describe this weird and wonderful little novel? The plot is based on Shakespeare's Hamlet, but our narrator is an eighth-month fetus, preternaturally aware and attuned to the ways of the world. He resides "upside down in a woman" and is privy to all that the woman is privy to, including the plot devised by her and her lover (her brother-in-law) to kill her husband, our narrator's father. McEwan's tale is essentially a two-hundred page soliloquy by that fetus as he watches in horror as their plan proceeds. It is absurd but dazzlingly imaginative and clever and somehow manages to be both suspenseful and profound. It is philosophical in range, in its view of a world that the narrator has not yet entered but imagines all too perfectly; it is a comedy that is marked by moments of tragedy.
To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavor, is just a speck in the universe of possible things.
Thus speaks our narrator/fetus/philosopher.

Our narrator reveals himself to be as much of a ham as a Hamlet. He has developed a well-informed taste for wine and a worldly grasp of current events gained through attentive listening to the educational podcasts preferred by his mother for her insomniac amusement. When he is bored at night, he kicks his mother awake so she will entertain him.

He recoils in horror at the active sex life pursued by his mother in her advanced state of pregnancy and cringes at the assault of her lover's penis pounding close by his soft skull.

He worries about what will happen to him if their murder plans succeed. Will his mother wind up in prison and will he be born there? Or even if her culpability is not discovered, will she give him up to some foster home or orphanage in order to pursue an unfettered life? The plans he hears her discussing certainly don't seem to include a baby.

In despair at his impotence, he considers suicide by strangling himself on his own umbilical cord. ("To be, or not to be...") But there, he realizes, is the rub.
Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions. We excite ourselves with dark thoughts in plays, poems, novels, movies. 

Every sentence of this short novel seems burnished to perfection. For example, the precocious fetus describes his uncle Claude, the murder conspirator, as a man "whose impoverished sentences die like motherless chicks, cheaply fading." Cheaply fading - one understands Claude completely in that phrase. And did I mention that the fetus' father is a poet and publisher of poets, a purveyor of rich and meaningful sentences?

McEwan has shown a preference for short novels. The last one of his that I read was The Children Act, another brief and well-polished gem. One gets the impression that he is not willing to accept anything else than perfection in his prose and so he whittles everything down to the essentials. This might not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those of us who find brevity to be the soul of wit and who enjoy a bit of philosophy with our fiction, it is hot and tasty and just right.

There is so much insight contained in this short book. The narrator describes a world where poverty and war, "with climate change held in reserve," is driving millions from their homes, vast movements of angry or desolate or hopeful people, "crammed at borders against the razor-wire gates, drowning in thousands to share in the fortunes of the West." His description of faith-based violence and the inanity of identity politics seems a perfect diagnosis of much of what ails modern society.

In this 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare's death, there have been a plethora of rewrites of his plots and themes. A number of them have been successful, some less so. None of them - at least of the ones that I've read - have attained the conspicuous brilliance of McEwan's effort and his beautiful prose. It is a unique bravura performance.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


  1. And bravo to you too, Dorothy, for this brilliant review! :-)

    1. I simply love McEwan's writing. It may not be to everyone's taste, but I feel he is writing just for me!

  2. Wow! Well I love McEwan's writing. And you are the second reading person who has raved about this book. I absolutely like a bit (or more) of philosophy with my fiction. Thanks!

    1. If you are a McEwan fan then I think you will absolutely love this book.


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