There’s no arguing with the fact that Ian McEwan is an astoundingly good writer. I have read enough of his books over the years to know that I like him, even when he’s hard work. (I have read Saturday, On Chesil Beach, and The Children Act Predating this blog I’ve read First Love, Last Rites, The Comfort of Strangers, The Cement Garden and my favourite McEwan novel, the devastating Atonement. I have a couple more on my tbr shelf.) McEwan is astonishingly prolific and you really never feel like you are reading the same book over and over. He has lots to say about a variety of topics and he says it well.
That’s the saving grace of Nutshell, which was chosen as our book club selection this month. I did a little inward grown when Sylvie revealed this book. Not because it was McEwan – clearly that wouldn’t bother ne – but because I already knew about the novel’s conceit and I wasn’t really interested in reading this book. At all. But then: it’s McEwan. In less capable hands, this book would be a dog’s breakfast and instead it was, while not exactly enjoyable, an easy read.
So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth.
That’s the opening of Nutshell. If it’s not obvious, the narrator of McEwan’s book is an unnamed fetus. He’s sentient and trapped inside his mother’s womb. I say trapped because instead of biding his time until he’s born, he must listen to his mother, Trudy, plot with her lover, Claude, to kill Trudy’s husband, John. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Claude and John are brothers. If any of this sounds familiar, you know your Shakespeare. That’s all I’ll say about that.
Although the conceit of having the story narrated by a fetus might have proven problematic in less capable hands, Nutshell, is totally readable. Of course it is. Our narrator relates overheard conversations and imagines others to which he is not privy. Through him we see the adults in this story – none of them particularly likeable. For example, he describes Claude as “a man who prefers to repeat himself. A man of riffs….This Claude is a property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing.” As for Trudy, “my untrue Trudy, whose apple-flesh arms and breasts and green regard I long for”, our narrator both loves and hates her. John, his father, was “Born under an obliging star, eager to please, too kind, too earnest, he has nothing of the ambitious poet’s quiet greed.”
As the narrator contemplates his mother and her lover’s plans to kill John, he also waxes poetic on a variety of topics including philosophy, poetry, and the best wine. He might be stuck where he is, but remarkably (or maybe not remarkably: this is McEwan, after all) the plot moves along at the pace of a good page-turner. Careful readers will love the allusions and readers smarter than me will likely find the overall reading experience intellectually satisfying.
Nutshell is classy fan fiction by a writer whose talent and intelligence are undeniable, but I wouldn’t have ever picked this book up on my own.