Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell is nothing short of mind-blowing. The bestselling author of Atonement has always surprised with his ability to present complex stories that usually lead to jaw-dropping unexpected endings. But with Nutshell, McEwan has outdone himself.
Let’s begin with the narrator. Reader’s of McEwan’s earlier work, know very well the extent to which the author fools the reader with narrators that reveal themselves in the end to be unreliable or just plain deceitful, stringing the reader along with a plethora of false clues and divergence of truth. In Nutshell, we are unable to judge the nature of the narrator for the simple reason that it hasn’t been born yet. Yes, this is McEwan’s trump card; the narrator of the story is an unborn babe who in his mother’s womb hears and feels everything happening in the outside world with astounding clarity and resonance, or at least this seems to be the likely scenario. You’ll do well to remember that McEwan’s narrators are not to be entirely trusted, even in fetal stage.
From this child, trapped in his mother’s body we hear a story of murder, betrayal and adultery . The mother Trudy, in her third trimester, is separated from the child’s father, a marriage that has gone sour, becoming loveless and stale. Choosing to live apart from her soon to be ex-husband, she indulges in a heated affair with the baby’s uncle, her philandering and financially successful brother-in-law, Claude. Not caring in the least that she is enceinte, Trudy carries on with her lover Claude in passionate lovemaking sessions that the child narrates in painful detail, revealing how he fears that his uncle thrusting inside his mother can potentially harm him.
Not only the sex is abundant, but also Trudy’s heavy drinking which puts the child in her womb in a frequent inebriated state, which we witnesses in a mix of amusement and disgust. The unborn child’s sense of awareness becomes even more acute when he is privy to a plan hatched by his mother and his lecherous uncle. Together, they conspire to kill John, the child’s father, lacing a favored smoothie with enough poison to carry out the deed. Trudy relies on Claude to take care of the clever details: gloves, securing the poison, and backing her up in case the police come around with questions.
McEwan weaves with Nutshell a modern Shakespearean tapestry. He masterfully lays an unprecedented retelling of Hamlet before us, laying out the elements for a modernized tragedy. Trudy and Claude are of course Gertrude and King Claudius, conspiring to kill Trudy’s husband John, who is of course King Hamlet.
The young prince Hamlet is also present, attempting to avenge his murdered father, recognizing the evil nature of his uncle and his own mother. Only in this case, how can he? Hamlet, or rather the unborn child is trapped in a world of amniotic fluid and limited resources. But there are other ways to seek justice for his father, even if in the end it means the possibility of sentencing his own mother, and coming into an uncertain world and an even more undetermined future.
Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is glorious and tragic, a heinous crime told through the eyes of an unborn witness who as it turns out, is the only one with the power to put things right.