‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 stars

Ian McEwan is a writer whose work I have mixed feelings about. Some books I really enjoyed, while others I found too dull. Nutshell falls into the first category, thanks to both its original narrator – an impressively intelligent and occasionally drunk foetus – and the frequent lyricism of the prose. In the first person, the resident of Trudy’s womb gradually unveils a plot of criminal intent, involving his mother and Claude.

The foetus can listen to everything people nearby him are saying. That faculty allows him to realise that Trudy and Claude, who is her lover and his uncle, are planning to act against John Cairncross, his father. John is a poet who hasn’t achieved much success. Despite not living in the same house as Trudy anymore, as she claimed to need more space and time to be alone, he still visits them in the hope of returning to his family house one day.

Throughout the novel, Trudy displays erratic feelings concerning John, but one thing is constant: her irresponsibility as a mother. She drinks too many alcoholic beverages for a pregnant woman. Something that the precocious narrator doesn’t really mind, although he is aware that alcohol can lower his intelligence. During a dinner out with Claude, Trudy drinks two glasses of wine, and the foetus has quite a poetic response to it.

“But oh, a joyous, blushful Pinot Noir, or a gooseberried Sauvignon, sets me turning and tumbling across my secret sea, reeling off the walls of my castle, the bouncy castle that is my home. Or so it did when I had more space.”

Actually, the writing style is characterised by various instances of lyricism and theatricality, which makes sense since the novel is inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. However, as the plot starts to gather momentum, the prose loses part of its initial poetic strand.

The foetus is funny, sarcastic and blunt, making him an overall fantastic narrator. I particularly liked that his discourse isn’t full of pure and sweet thoughts, which wouldn’t have made sense, since all the people he is listening to are far from perfect and have their own agendas. He expresses conflicting feelings about Trudy. As his remarks about her needing more space indicate, he both despises and loves her.

“Space! She could come in here, where lately I can barely crook a finger. In my mother’s usage, space, her need for it, is a misshapen metaphor, if not a synonym, for being selfish, devious, cruel. But wait, I love her, she’s my divinity and I need her. I take it back! I spoke in anguish. I’m as deluded as my father.”

Since the foetus can also hear the many radio programmes and podcasts that Trudy listens to, he has a wide-ranging knowledge about what is happening around the world. Throughout the book, he delves into various problematic political current affairs and social issues with relevance to both the UK and Europe as a whole.

The technique of having the foetus only knowing about things he can listen to or physically feel isn’t always rigorously respected, though. In some rare instances, the foetus ends up describing occurrences that he could only have known about after visually witnessing them. For example, how could he know that once, when Trudy and Claude are about to have sex, he folds his clothes across a chair? A really bizarre conversation had to happen for it to be possible.

While the foetus puts the pieces together in order to understand what Trudy and Claude are plotting and awaits the outcome, the reader is introduced to a tale of lost love, brother jealousy and greed. I recognise that Nutshell is far from perfect, but I still quite enjoyed reading it.


8 thoughts on “‘Nutshell’ by Ian McEwan

  1. Norrie says:

    Hmm, a sarcastic foetus… that sounds bizarre… and somewhat interesting 😀
    Great review! I saw this book recently but haven’t actually checked what it was about. I’m still traumatized by Atonement…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. mybookinggreatblog says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this – it was hyped so much a couple of years ago but something put me off…I can’t remember now but I’ll pick it up and have a read following your review!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elena says:

    Sounds like quite a complex read, Susana. I think that the idea of a foetus being involved in a criminal plot somehow is very interesting, however, didn’t you find the idea of a foetus having a conscience problematic somehow? Or did you take it a pinch of salt?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Susana_S_F says:

      Thank you for your comment, Elena. You raised an interesting question!
      I didn’t find it problematic, because I read it in the same way that I would read a fantasy book. In the sense that both feature elements that are not present in the real world. Instead of dragons, for example, Nutshell features a foetus with a conscience.
      The writing style is so theatrical that not even once did I get the feeling that we’re supposed to think that a foetus is actually ‘conscious’ in real life. It also really helped that the foetus doesn’t sound like a young child at all. I think the book could even be classed as surrealism.
      Thinking back, I should have mentioned all this in the review!

      Liked by 1 person

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