Book Review – Nutshell by Ian McEwan
After panting and wheezing my way though a couple of doorstop books (not all of which did their weight justice), I was relieved recently to have been confronted with the dainty new 199-page novel from Ian McEwen, Nutshell. McEwen is one of those people, like Woody Allen or Philip Roth or Martin Scorcese, where a a new offering simply requires a mandatory pilgrimage, even if there are certain to be disappointments along the way. Saturday, Atonement and Amsterdam had engraved McEwan’s name on my must-always-read list, and its economy was an added attraction.
This book’s premise is an audacious conceit. The narrator is the main protagonist’s unborn boy-child, nestled snugly in her womb, where he is witness to murder-most-foul. I say this with intent because the foetus hilariously narrates in faux-Shakespearean English (the book is set in our current time), full of poetry, soaring soliloquy and flowery flights of imagination and introspection. This is a high-wire act, and when it became clear who was narrating (within minutes of starting the book), I got a little anxious – this is just silly, I thought – it cannot sustain. A foetus (even if one were to grant literary license), has never seen the world. How can it possibly be our ubiquitous narrator?
Ah, but McEwen is a master of device (his most recent, Sweet Tooth, reveals the entire story to have been a brilliant deceit in the final pages). In Nutshell he smartly fashions the mechanisms of this unborn baby’s knowledge – he has heard his mother in conversation, he has heard podcasts late into the night as his mother struggles with insomnia, he has heard the muffled TV, the radio. He knows a great deal, our foetus, without ever having to have opened his eyes.
And then there is the plot. An old-fashioned English murder nefariously planned by the mother and her lover, directed at our baby’s father – a cuckolded, impecunious and unheralded publisher of poetry, now separated and forced out of the house that he owns (and which his would be killers want). Our little womb-bound hero knows of the murder plans, what can he do? He loves his mother and his father – what is to become of his life of the murder plans succeed? What if she is caught? His, um, erudite babylike musings on these matters make up much of the clever and lightly comedic backdrop of the novel. There are plot holes galore, the murder and its undoing is reasonably predictable, but it is all bundled together in a literary and good-natured package and serves more to advertise McEwan’s mastery of language, dialogue and quintessential British comedic understatement than it does to advance the crime genre in which it unfolds.
There are some truly funny scenes – our tiny hero’s periodic disgust as his mother’s oafish and oversexed lover takes her from behind, squashing his little head with his thrusting penis. Our unborn child’s unashamed and very modern admission of his drinking problem, a result of his mother’s excessive fondness for fine wines. His terror of ending up as an foster baby in a 13th story walk-up.
This is undoubtedly the first (perhaps) and last time we will have a foetus as a novel’s narrator. In less experienced hands this could been a terrible mess. But this novelist knows his way around storytelling (20 books, excluding librettos and oratorios and screenplays). And perhaps he dashed this off in the metaphorical equivalent of an afternoon, but it was worth the quick pilgrimage this author’s work demands.