Review: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Cait Findlay 23 April 2017

Ian McEwan never plays it safe. Whether it be a plot based around a balloon ride, or a grotesque description of a decaying corpse, McEwan is an author renowned for pushing boundaries, both social and literary. Nowhere are literary fringes breached and conventions challenged more than in Nutshell. A ‘whodunnit’ novel turned upside-down, the narrative is told from the perspective of a formidably intelligent and opinionated foetus. The baby – McEwan never gives him a name – is the unborn child of Trudy and John, two happy lovers turned divorcees. Trudy and her new partner, Claude, are scheming for John’s fortune, but this is no petty, squabbling love triangle, as John becomes prey to their plot for murder.

Revenge, remarriage, and resentment. Does that sound familiar? If not, the Shakespearean quotation ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams’ might reverberate more potently. The plot and themes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet are threaded overtly throughout the novel, on some occasions more effectively than others. This seems to be the drift of Nutshell: parts are virtuoso feats of wordplay and allusion, yet at other times the novel feels, unusually for McEwan, somewhat half-baked.

McEwan has long been revered as a master of openings, but even here he fails to deliver. ‘So here I am, upside down in a woman’, the book begins. Yes, it is gripping and, yes, the internal rhyme trips nicely off the tongue, but it sounds rather like a sentence we were reprimanded for when writing stories at primary school. Did we not all think we were highly original in ending our creative writing projects with ‘but it was all a dream’? It is too much to reduce the Booker Prize-winning McEwan to the level of a scribbling seven-year-old, but readers of Nutshell cannot help being a little disappointed at a novel which feels, at time, artless and artificial. The opening line, for example, satisfies the plot and successfully introduces the unconventional perspective, but does so without the subtlety and elegance that McEwan’s writing usually boasts.

Satisfying but insubstantial: so the novel proceeds. The essential idea, a Hamlet-figure suffering in reverse, wondering if he should be born rather than if he should die, is rather wonderful, but regrettably the story fails to fulfil the demands of this knotty Shakespearean allusion. Many of the links coupling the Hamlet-style plot and the middle-class-omniscient-foetus plot emerge with a sense of having been pushed into the narrative and onto the reader. They hold together, but don’t feel real. McEwan obviously had a good time naming the conspiring couple – (Ger-) Trudy and Claude (-ius) – and their order for ‘open sandwiches, pickled herring, baked meats’ from a Danish takeaway, whose existence I find fairly unlikely, appropriately evokes Hamlet’s setting in Elsinore. McEwan cleverly interweaves quotations from the play into his story, reworking Hamlet’s line, ‘What a piece of work is a man’, into a description of Claude, as we are told of him that ‘as a man he’s a piece of work’. Such ties and allusions are good fun, but they diminish the novel to a game of dot-to-dot: are you clever enough to 'Spot The Shakespeare'? Readers cannot help but feel that they are under the disapproving eye of a patronisingly intelligent schoolmaster.

Nutshell is certainly not a novel McEwan fans will want to miss, but don’t expect it to deliver like Atonement or Enduring Love. The narrative precision and beautiful subtly which gives these masterpieces their radiating brilliance is sadly lacking from his latest experiment. McEwan’s reputation for literary brilliance remains strong – it would take a spectacular failure to taint it – but Nutshell will not stand, to borrow a line from Polonius, ‘of the best rank and station’ in comparison with his other works.