A Prophetic Soul? Ian McEwan’s Nutshell

img_0926McEwan, Ian. Nutshell. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2016.

This is one of McEwan’s short books. It is a very clever and witty book indeed, but I’m not sure I enjoyed it as much as others have. I found it too self-consciously clever, and, curmudgeon that I am, I found it very hard to suspend my disbelief. As I am sure you know from other reviews, this first-person narrative is told from the point of view of a near term foetus.

The narrator’s mother Trudy is separated from the narrator’s father poet John Cairncross and although heavily pregnant with the narrator is having an affair with John’s brother Claude. In fact, they are engaged in more than simple adultery; they are planning the murder of John and the sale of the family home which, despite the fact Trudy has let it become an absolute tip, is worth millions of pounds. Does all this sound vaguely familiar? Of course, it does. Nutshell is McEwan’s reworking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet together with copious allusions to and wordplays on not only the rest of the Shakespearean canon but much of English literature, especially poetry. After a while, one gives up the mental annotations and just gives in to the plot, which is, I would argue, no longer tragic but darkly even viciously comic.img_0926

Gone is the gloomy late-adolescent Dane, and in his place is a highly insightful, precocious unborn child who does for a brief while consider not being and tries to strangle himself with his umbilical cord before deciding wholeheartedly in favour of life, choosing to be born into twenty-first century London and a world of identity politics. The narrator becomes harshly sarcastic as he considers the “new politics in university life” and the “strange mood [that] has seized the almost educated young” (144) anxious about “inconvenient opinions” (145). In utero, he declaims, “Away with the real, with dull facts and hated pretence of objectivity. Feeling is queen. Unless she identifies as king” (146). A precocious child indeed: one who quotes Hobbes and prefers a “Sancerre, preferably from Chavignol” (31) to a Sauvignon Blanc but also fears being abandoned by his mother and adopted into “the curiosity-free mindscape of the modern English peasantry” (43) and doomed to “somewhere on the thirteenth floor of a brutal tower block” (42).

img_0926The narrator’s vigorous and strident idiom suggests McEwan is channelling Swift, and surely the narrator is channelling McEwan. Even contemporary poetics come in for criticism: “Too much about the self, too glassily cool with regard to others, too many gripes in too short a line” (14).

I have to admit there are moments when I agree with the critique both social and aesthetic, but even as I acknowledge McEwan’s consummate skill in this novella, I’m still not sure that I actually enjoyed it. Nutshell is witty and brief. Truly, you must decide for your own self.


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