A review of the novel “Nutshell” by Ian McEwan

“Nutshell” (2016) is McEwan’s latest and 14th novel in a distinguished writing career and it is the sixth that I have read (“Atonement” was the most impressive). The word of the title never appears in the text but only in a preliminary quote from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” which makes it clear that this story is a kind of reworking of that of the Prince of Denmark. While Hamlet’s mother was called Gertrude and his uncle was Claudius, the narrator of “Nutshell” has a mother called Trudy and an uncle Claude, so the allusions are obvious.

The big difference between Hamlet and this narrator is that the latter is a male foetus in third tremester. This might seem rather limiting for the point of view of a novel, but Ewan enables his unborn child to hear everything his mother hears including a lot of radio and an extensive range of podcasts. Now this is a device I have myself used for a short story, but McEwan takes the notion much further by enabling his foetus not only to understand and remember all he hears but to talk about it with literary style and vocabulary that would exceed the talents of a university graduate in any subject except English Literature (phrases like “his banality as finely wrought as the arabesques of the Blue Mosque” and “a poem of four stanzas of trochaic tetrameters catalectic” and words such as “aubade” and exequy”). Most notably, the author shows off his erudition regarding wine and poetry.

If one can forgive McEwan this literary conceit and accept the limited confines of the narrator (always in the womb of a mother who is always in a £ 8M north London house), this is a beautifully-written and entertaining read with not just the outline of a crime but expositions on the state of the modern world. The narrator may inhabit a “nutshell’ but,as Shakespeare would put it, he is “king of infinite space”.

Link: my own short story using the same kind of narrator click here


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