Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She's still in the marital home - a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse - but not with John. Instead, she's with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month-old resident of Trudy's womb.
Trudy is roughly nine months pregnant. Although she separated from her husband John, a not very successful poet and publisher, she still lives in the dilapidated family home in London that he inherited., while John has moved to a flat in Shoreditch. Trudy initially told him that they needed time apart to make the marriage work--but she is deep into an affair with his younger brother Claude, a real estate developer (who has about the same level of class as the current Republican presidential candidate). Despite her advanced pregnancy, Trudy and Claude engage in regular and vigorous sex, leaving our narrator to worry that he will have his fontanel poked in or will absorb some essence of the deplorable Claude into his being. He does, however, enjoy the finer wines that his mother imbibes and has developed quite the connoisseur's palate.
The trouble begins when John announces that he knows about and accepts Trudy and Claude's relationship, confesses that he has a new lover of his own, and states that he wants to move back into the family home. The plot thickens as Trudy and Claude decide that John must go--permanently. And our narrator is positioned to eavesdrop on their plans to murder his father and give him up for adoption. If Shakespeare's Hamlet was hampered by indecision, well, this protagonist is even more incapacitated by his unborn state. Literally and emotionally attached to his mother (he experiences every hormonal and adrenal shift), he is nonetheless horrified by the plot against his father's life and by the thought of Trudy giving him up to live with the detested Claude.
In addition to the obvious parallels to Hamlet, McEwan weaves well-known lines from the play into Nutshell, although the words are sometimes put into the mouths of unexpected characters and sometimes subtly changed, a word here or there. If you're familiar with the play, the effect is delightful--reminiscent of the way in which famous lines by the Bard keep popping up in Tom Stoppard's screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love." And McEwan brings it all to a climax that, in its own context, rivals the final scene of Hamlet. "The rest is chaos."
A modern and loose retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet, it has all the elements of high drama and theatrics you'd expect from the Bard, but whether you're 'into' Shakespeare, or even familiar with the original play or not hardly matters. Here is a very clever thriller about two lovers plotting murder for entirely selfish motives, the whole of which is narrated by a yet unborn foetus. An unusual and not especially credible narrator you might say, but then I've read books narrated by trees, dogs and horses among other things: the greatest reward comes if you're willing to suspend disbelief and go along with the story.
Trudy and her husband John are currently separated, though they are expecting their first child. The expecting mother claims she needs 'time to herself', but really, she just wants to keep the coast clear in the London marriage home that John inherited from his parents so that she and her lover Claude (who just happens to be John's younger brother) can indulge in frequent passionate sex and even more frequent plotting sessions. John must be gotten rid of, so they can get their hands on the fortune the sale of the house will bring, and nothing is going to get in their way. Possibly.
Our narrator has clearly inherited a large dose of his father's creative genius—John is a published poet and publisher, and baby expresses himself beautifully and with great wit, quotes famous literary authors and happens to be a wine aficionado thanks to his mother's frequent imbibing of fine vintages. He hates and mistrusts his uncle Claude, and for good reason. Apart from Claude possibly wanting to be rid of another man's baby, he's also an insufferable bore whose conversation is entirely made up of platitudes and boring clichés; not clear is whether Claude is a complete fool, or cleverly hiding his true self.
I've seen Rory Kinnear perform in Shakespeare plays, and his Iago, the great villain in Othello, was especially chilling. Here he brings all his talent to give voice to baby and all the other protagonists, and it's a brilliant performance.
But why am I using so many words? I should just copy/paste my spontaneous reaction when I finished the book, which I shared on Facebook:
"THIS BOOK IS BLOODY BRILLIANT!!! Hurry up and get your hands on it, and I defy you to NOT take it all in in one go. Also, if you're considering trying audiobooks, then this is one to go with, brilliantly performed by the fantastic Rory Kinnear, who is among other things, a superb Shakespeare actor, which is entirely fitting for a book referencing Hamlet. But wait! It's a thriller! Narrated by a foetus! With horrible people doing horrible things (plotting murder most foul), in most amusing ways. And needless to say, this being Ian McEwan, beautifully, beautifully written. I loved this book so much, I hurried up to purchase my own audio copy right after having listened to a library loaner. Kinnear's performance is definitely a keeper (and may he narrate many more remarkable books like this one).
Now a baby doesn’t know much about this world, right? Well, this baby has been absorbing all of the podcasts and audio books and TV news shows that his mother has been listening to and has gained great insight into the world in which he’s about to be born. He’s really amazingly educated being such a young age! However, there’s only so much this little baby can know, not being able to see what’s going on and falling asleep during vital conversations, so he’s a bit of an unreliable narrator but he does the best he can.
This is a very witty, and certainly totally unique, retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I usually steer clear of retellings but I’m very glad I had a chance to read this one. Mr. McEwan has really pulled out all stops with his latest.
I won this book in a Doubleday giveaway.
"Between the conception of a deed and its acting out lies a tangle of hideous contingencies".... Quite a premise: a fetus is watching and commenting (in a most sagacious way!) on the drama enfolding around his mother's life... My first instinct was to wonder: is there a "pro-life" message in that? But that was probably the paranoia from the ongoing elections here in US - which was then explained in an interview that I read, where McEwan said that the "pro-choice" vs "pro-life" thought never entered his mind in writing of this novel. He even said that only Americans might find this thread of thought in it. Ha! No wonder...
And even before I read that interview, I had to abandon that idea - simply because so much else was overpowering in this book: first of all - McEwan's striking eloquence, where exceptional humor meets the most serious of discussions ; secondly - a riveting plot; and thirdly - an ongoing commentary by the author (through the mind of the unborn child) about the world political scenery, global changes: a succinct but astute analysis of everything that's wrong with the world today... "Revenge unstitches a civilization" - how about that for summing it all up.... His thoughts about Europe are compelling: "Old Europa tosses in her dreams, she pitches between pity and fear, between helping and repelling. Emotional and kind this week, scaly-hearted and so reasonable the next, she wants to help but she doesn't want to share or lose what she has." A thoroughly captivating read. Loved it.
The story may well require a massive suspension of disbelief but the skill of the author and the taut, imaginative narrative and the wonderful black humour made it easy for me to do just that, and to settle back to enjoy a womb’s-eye view of life – or even, of death! I hope he had fun writing it because I certainly had fun reading it!
His latest novel takes the form of a narrative delivered by a nine-month old foetus, on the cusp of being born, whose aural window on the world has allowed him to follow the unconventional vicissitudes of what proves to be a rather complicated family life. As if this unusual context were not enough for the reader to take on board, the novel also resonates with references to Hamlet. The baby’s mother is Trudy, rather than Gertrude, and the wicked uncle answers to Claude rather than Claudius, but the parallels abound. The erudite foetus is even happy to quote James Joyce at times, to succinct comic effect, and the allusions to Shakespeare’s play are manifold and apposite, but never overpowering.
Of course, all of the above might alarm a reader who simply wants a gripping and entertaining story, but they should not be concerned. McEwan has the skill to experiment with the form of the novel without compromising the substance. The story is a thriller, and the tension builds readily from the beginning. Indeed, within a couple of pages, the narration is so engaging that the unconventional source is immediately accepted.
This is yet another in McEwan’s now lengthy line of winners, each different from the rest. Like so many of his previous novels, such as On Chesil Beach, Solar, and Sweet Tooth, my one regret was that I finished it too soon, though I am confident that I shall be re-reading it before very long.
Ian McEwan once again displays his ferocious talent for control of word and line and tension and plot. His unborn first-person narrator has learned much through BBC Radio 4 dramas and innumerable podcasts piped through earbuds to his mother’s cranium and by a sort of osmosis down to him. So he has a sense of the world even if he doesn’t know what it looks like or at least what colours look like. For him the world is much like a radio play. His imagination fills in the gaps — needs must — sometimes piercing through the veil of deceit cast by others, at other times deceiving himself. It’s a tour de force if ever there was one.
But, as ever with McEwan’s later works, there is something unsettling about the clinical nature of the prose. Perhaps it is the lack of fellow feeling with the characters. Perhaps it is the fact that the only ‘person’ McEwan draws us close to is no person at all (depending on which theory of consciousness you adhere to). Inevitably it all seems a bit too much like an exercise. Yet it makes you wonder what is the point of exercise — health, fitness, body-grooming? Can an author ever be too much into himself?
Recommended, for the sheer chutzpah of the effort, but not wholeheartedly, because I think it lacks heart.
Its great - an afternoon with a master at work that you won't regret spending.
On a secondary point, I am always interested when authors use the names of well known historical or fictional characters in their work. For example - what was John Mortimer thinking when he named one of the protagonists in his last Rumpole story "Honoria Glossop". Had he been reading Wodehouse and the name just stuck in his subconscious? In which case, why didn't his editors pick it up? Can they be so illiterate? Or was something broader meant? In which case, what? In this case, Ian McEwan names his potential plot victim "John Cairncross"; as many will know John Cairncross is the name of a Soviet double agent, and alleged member, with Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt, of the Cambridge Five. This is something that McEwan, who has written about espionage (for example in Sweet Tooth and The Innocent) could hardly not be aware of. What then is meant by this? It doesn't add to or detract from, enjoyment of the work at hand, but it interests me
So why did I have such a disconnect with this book? The writing is wonderful, amazing in places. Was it that I had a hard time envisioning a fetus using this level of thought and speech? Not sure, though I did find myself occasionally shaking my head at the thought especially since I am not a fantasy lover, maybe I had a hard time going there?. I do admire the originality of the author's vision though. I think what frustrated me the most was all the thought side trips, just a little too much going astray here and there. This is definitely one intelligent fetus. Sometimes though, less is more and that is really how felt. It was just too much. Still I was glad of the experience of reading this very original story and ingesting this author's amazing prose.
ARC from Netgalley.
Writing: I found the wiring to be a touch verbose, overly descriptive. However, at less than 200 pages, the editor of this one was probably hesitant to cut too much.
Overall: It was a fast and easy read, albeit unexceptional. I recommend it if you need a quick "palate cleanser" to assist in getting over a book hangover. Otherwise, look past this one.
Of course, it involves a huge suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader - that a foetus can narrate a novel, can have absorbed (through listening into conversations, podcasts, TV) enough knowledge about the world to understand what is going on around him, as well as the broad sweep of twenty-first century current affairs. He's even (via his placenta) a wine buff! McEwan brings it off incredibly well and the writing is simply gorgeous, every sentence so well turned that you want to reread whole passages for the pleasure. It's fun to spot the lines form Shakespeare, subverted and woven into the tapestry.
There's plenty of humour too - I especially loved Claude who speaks only in cliched utterances.
I liked the latter a lot more.
Our unnamed narrator is a miraculously articulate and knowledgeable fetus, very near term, who hears his mother and her boyfriend plotting the murder of the fetus' father who is also his mother's husband, her boyfriend's brother. It's a short novel and it ends just in time to avoid going too far. Lyrical, humorous, ironic, delightful. Perfect.
Nutshell is an entertaining work and a quick read, although I found the fetus's witty comments to be a bit too clever at times, which kept me from giving it 4 or more stars.
The other narrative scheme McEwan adopts in the novel is a bit more successful, but by no means new. He retells the plot of “Hamlet.” The reader can derive considerable pleasure ferreting out all of his tongue-in-cheek references to that play in his narrative. Title: “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.” Character names: Trudy = Gertrude, Claude = Claudius. Plot: fratricide, revenge by a son. Setting: a rundown “castle” in St. John’s Wood. It is quite possible that the average reader will miss many of the more veiled references.
Setting aside the dubious choice of narrator and the Hamlet plotting, there is still much to like in this novel. The language is superb, the dialogue is concise and humorous, the insights are spot-on, the characters are interesting and the plotting is clever and precise. There are a few messy bits, but these are not significant enough to detract from enjoying the novel. The rationales for some of Trudy’s choices seem pretty dubious, most notably, her selection of murder over divorce and her choice of the materialistic and vapid brother. McEwan’s handling of sex and birth from the perspective of the fetus are quite amusing as are the twists that eventually trip up the plotters. However, the latter seem a little too contrived to be believable.