A fetus observes from his mother Trudy’s womb as she schemes with her lover Claude to murder her husband, his brother John. Ian McEwan’s Nutshell has a clever conceit, a loose re-telling of Hamlet told from the point of view of an unborn protagonist. There are shades of Macbeth in there as well, with Claude and Trudy’s dynamic very similar to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. There have been quite a few Shakespearean re-tellings lately (the Hogarth series in particular of which Nutshell is not a part), and McEwan’s novel stands among the best and most clever riffs on the Bard’s legacy.
McEwan pays homage to his source material from the start. The book opens with an epigraph from Hamlet and the early passages provide some knowing winks to anyone familiar with Shakespeare. “Seems, Mother? No, it is. You are,” the narrator says on page 2, echoing Hamlet’s response to his mother Gertrude in Act I, scene 2: “‘Seems’, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.'” Just a page later, the narrator ponders his will to be born, and his phrasing echoes Hamlet’s iconic “To be or not to be” soliloquy on his desire for death: “So getting closer, my idea was To be. Or if not that, its grammatical variant, is.” There is just enough similarity to twig recognition in Shakespeare fans, and just enough difference in context to make it wholly original. Throughout the book, McEwan maintains a playful touch with language, teasing with hints of Shakespearean phraseology or planting bits of story recognizable from the play, but keeping these touches light enough that they never feel stale, nor trying too hard to be clever.
There are moments when the prose gets a bit unwieldy, the narrator waxing on with as much melodrama as, admittedly, Hamlet was wont to do, and I find myself tempted to skim ahead. That being said, there are also times the florid descriptions work, as with this masterfully vivid passage: “Between his weakness and her deceit was the fetid crack that spontaneously generated a maggot-uncle. And I squat here sealed in my private life, in a lingering, sultry dark, impatiently dreaming.” [p. 34] How beautiful is the phrase “lingering, sultry dark”?
While a riff on a classic, the story itself feels fresh and original. It’s mainly a story of murder, the plotting thereof and the aftermath of the decision. McEwan’s comedic talents and ear for dialogue come to the fore, particularly in the scene where Trudy and Claude attempt to implement their plan. One can almost imagine the actors in this murderous plot turned farce, and much of the comedy comes from the choreography of the conversation.
Or take as well the bawdy comedy of a sex scene as told by a fetus, likely enough to make any pregnant reader blush. “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose,” the narrator comments wryly. Then: “This turbulence would shake the wings of a Boeing.” [p. 20] He compares the experience to that of an amusement park ride, and his mother “[arriving] to take her place on the Wall of Death.” [p. 22] As George Takei would say, oh my.
The novel is a masterclass in craftsmanship, and the language finely tuned. The story itself seems like a pretty straightforward one of murder and betrayal, but the execution is brilliant. Bravo, Mr. McEwan.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.