I’ve talked about Ian McEwan and my reading previously. I know some think he writes only one character (that being himself) and that the ever-present moral twist in his stories is predictable – but I’m okay with that. And Nutshell goes on my list of McEwan Worth Reading*.
Nutshell is a riff on Hamlet, told from the perspective of an unborn baby. The baby ‘listens in’ on his mother, the petulant, wine-and-podcast-loving Trudy; her lover, the boorish Claude; and occasionally his biological father, John, a poet with a skin condition. Note that Claude is John’s brother.
“Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.”
Trudy has dumped John, kicking him out of his dilapidated but valuable house. Planning to sell the house, Trudy and Claude hatch a plan to murder John.
The baby’s contempt for Claude is a highlight –
“Here is a man who whistles continually, not songs but TV jingles, ringtones, who brightens a morning with Nokia’s mockery of Tárrega. Whose repeated remarks are a witless, thrustless dribble, whose impoverished sentences die like motherless chicks, cheaply fading. Who washes his private parts at the basin where my mother washes her face. Who knows only clothes and cars.”
“To be tied to a man as vapid but sexually vigorous as Claude is a complex fate.”
There’s an obvious flaw in McEwan’s narrative, highlighted within the first few pages when our unborn narrator acknowledges that his understanding of what constitutes colour is merely an abstraction. Yet, pages later, is pondering his father’s penchant for poems featuring a “…trochaic trimeter” and social customs (among other things) –
“No child, still less a foetus, has ever mastered the art of small talk, or would ever want to. It’s an adult device, a covenant with boredom and deceit.”
Is an unborn baby as a narrator a silly gimmick? I was leaning toward ‘yes’ however McEwan proceeds to take the joke to such ridiculous lengths that I could only assume that McEwan had an enormous amount of fun writing this book.
So, do as I did and accept that while most unborn babies have no knowledge of anything beyond the womb (let alone Ulysses, property development, and wines from the Burgundy region), the star of Nutshell does – enjoy.
3/5 A crime novel with a difference.
The baby’s descriptions of Trudy’s drinking are stupendous (and deeply concerning, obviously) –
“After a piercing white, a Pinot Noir is a mother’s soothing hand. Oh, to be alive while such a grape exists! A blossom, a bouquet of peace and reason. No one seems to want to read aloud the label so I’m forced to make a guess, and hazard an Échézeaux Grand Cru. Put Claude’s penis or, less stressful, a gun to my head to name the domaine, I would blurt out la Romanée-Conti, for the spicy cassis and black cherry alone. The hint of violets and fine tannins suggest that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves, through a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009. But I’ll never know. As the brooding ensemble of flavours, formed at civilisation’s summit, makes its way to me, through me, I find myself, in the midst of horror, in reflective mood.”
The baby may have been enjoying a French Pinot but recently, I’ve been drinking a local from Gembrook Hill.
* My revised Order of McEwan:
- On Chesil Beach
- The Children Act
- …and then all the others if you can be bothered.
I’m not sure… it sounds awful, but then I do trust you… I think I’ll have to follow your advice & go with it, & not think about the premise too much!
Oh it’s mental. And some bits are revolting but I think McEwan is having a laugh. Do you like McEwan? If so, I reckon it’s one of his better books.
I do like him, but I also find him a bit hit-and-miss. I’ll keep my fingers crossed this is more hit than miss!
I find McEwan really hit or miss. I loved Atonement and found Solar quite entertaining (although all I remember is a misunderstanding involving crisps), but couldn’t get through Saturday or Amsterdam. I might read this at some point but I think maybe your review is more entertaining than the book!
I agree. Loved the books I listed but thought Amsterdam, Saturday, Sweet Tooth and Enduring Love all so-so. My memory of Solar was similar to yours – one very scene (but I though it involved the main character needing to do a wee?!).
If you haven’t read any of his more recent stuff I’d rate Children Act for the moral dilemma and Nutshell for the creative writing.
Helped my daughter do a uni essay on Atonement, and learned to hate it.
Ha ha! Often the case when you have to dissect a novel!
I’ve just come here having read the book – I usually don’t read blogs until I’ve written my own, but I only finished it today and my reading group is doing it tonight so I thought I’d do a quick whip around.
I have to say that for me dissecting a novel nearly always makes me love it more. I guess I’m just weird!
Anyhow, I haven’t read The children act, but have read at least 7: I’d put Atonement first, then On Chesil Beach, then Enduring love, and then Nutshell. (I’ve also read Saturday, Amsterdam and Solar.)
Hold up – babies in utero are not menaced by penises even if their mothers have sex while pregnant! Basic anatomy, McEwan: the cervix exists!
Just one of the many impossible (but weirdly compelling) elements in this book!
Hmmm, he says “inches” from his nose not touching his body. It made sense to me. And anyhow, I would never read something so fantastical as this literally anyhow. I’m sure anyone reading such a narrator would find the scenario describe completely comprehensible within the construct of the novel.
Funnily enough dissecting a novel usually makes me love it more, and can result in my liking a book I didn’t initially like.
And yes I like McEwan a lot, though I think On Chesil Beach is the last that I’ve read. I’d put Atonement first, then On Chesil Beach, and then Enduring love. I think that book has one of the best opening chapters I’ve read. I’ve read at least three others but these are my top three.
You are not the only one who finds dissection often results in a better appreciation of a novel for me. I might still not like it at the end but I certainly understand it better.
Oh good, thanks Karen. I’m glad I’m not the only one.
Agree that the opening of Enduring Love is magnificent although it doesn’t make my top McEwans because I seem to recall some gangster scene in a house that seemed a little far-fetched?? *note that I’m using far fetched but not in reference to a foetal narrator?! 😂*
Haha, love your qualification! I don’t recollect that bothering me, but I do remember a break in scene in Saturday that I found a little melodramatic.
I have no problem suspending disbelief when I read fiction and am usually very tolerant of things others hate. I mean an in utero narrator is completely improbable so if I accept that I can accept that that narrator knows stuff!
I’m the same although was wrong-footed at the beginning of this book because I thought it was somewhat serious – it quickly becomes clear that McEwan is having a big laugh.
I’ve only read a handful of McEwan and I generally love them until the last quarter where he goes over the top: the man can’t do a sensible ending to save himself. (My favourite McEwan is the newspaper satire Amsterdam.) Funnily enough I heard him do a reading of Nutshell pre-publication at a Vintage showcase for bloggers and booksellers and he had everyone roaring with laughter. I think he really enjoyed himself reading (and writing) this book, so when I eventually get around to reading it I will know not to take things too seriously.
The ending of this one is appropriate. The book is not without a little bit of ranting but coming from a baby, it’s funny. Would have been great to hear him read!
Interesting that this book is reminiscent to Hamlet. Looking forward to reading this book at some point (especially now that I’m pumped after reading The Children Act 🙂 )!
I’m not familiar enough with Hamlet to spot all of the references but would love to hear thoughts from someone (you?!) who knows the play well.
This sounds weird, but good. I like the Hamlet angle. But I think this’d be one of those read once and never again kind of books – definitely a library borrow. Unlike Atonement, which I could read forever.
It is a once-off read and it’s also a quick read – perfect for a long afternoon!
I think my love affair with McEwan has come to an end. The last two I read by him I didn’t rate at all – Saturday and the Children Act. He. Isn’t have had great fun writing Nutshell but the premise sounds awful to me.
Prior to this one, I’d read Children Act (loved) and Sweet Tooth (only okay) but agree, two mediocre books in a row from one author is enough reason to break-up!
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