Friday, 18 November 2016

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

This book is in SBR's
2016 Top Ten Reads

Published by: Nan A Talese
Publication date: 13 September 2016

Publisher's synopsis: 
Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She's still in the marital home a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse but John's not here. Instead, she's with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month old resident of Trudy's womb.

Told from a perspective unlike any other, Nutshell is a classic tale of murder and deceit from one of the world's master storytellers

Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

A Hamlet ingnoramus' review
I was excited about this novel for 2 reasons:
  1. Ian EcEwan's previous novel, The Children Act, was so brilliant.
  2. The premise of Nutshell suggested promise.
So, when it came out I got hold of a copy tout de suite. 

On reading, I wasn't sure about it at the beginning.  The reason for this was because the narrator is a highly intelligent and sophisticated foetus, which felt unnatural and uncomfortable. To me this nameless character who I will refer to as 'Baby', came across as precocious - which was annoying.  I had to stop reading and have a conversation with myself - one that consisted of me explaining that I am going about this all wrong.  I need to suspend my disbelief and not think on this unborn child as ordinary, but extraordinary and completely self-aware.  With a new frame of mind I went back to the book and my annoyance disappeared.

Throughout her pregnancy, we learn that Trudy has spent a lot of her time listening to BBC radio 4 and informative podcasts about a multitude of topical subjects.  Baby has been able to hear and absorb all the information being broadcast and has learned much about the world in this way.  Baby spends it's time listening, contemplating and philosophising about the world it is yet to enter.  Baby also hears all the conversations going on in close proximity and discovers that its mother is having an affair.  Baby is more intelligent than your average adult (me, for instance, which may have been my initial problem), and notably more so than any of the adults in the book.  It forms its conclusions about them: unconditional love for its mother - despite her treacherous ways, and utter contempt for Claude, the man Trudy is cheating on Baby's father with, who Baby idolises, since father represents security and hope.

As this rather dark story unfolds, more revelations hit this infant, each an increasingly shocking blow.  The effects are quite traumatic and Baby becomes melancholy and (aided by secondary consumption of alcohol via the placenta) mawkish, as a result.  I found myself empathising with this infant, particularly with the desperate sense of helplessness to change what is going on and what is to come.

On the surface Nutshell may be a classic murder story but I saw something more, i.e., a reflection of current world events, as McEwan holds a mirror up to humanity*.  I feel as though Baby represents members of the population who are discovering the meaning (and reality) of political change in the western world and finding themselves, shocked, horrified and in a state of helplessness, melancholia and, yes, mawkishness.

Nutshell did not disappoint.  It is both brilliant and insightful and, therefore, a novel I cannot recommend highly enough.

*A (paraphrased) quote taken from Hamlet, of which this book is loosely based.

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