I discovered Ian McEwan a few years ago and had a very enjoyable stretch of reading everything he'd written up to that point. Some of his novels I loved, some I liked less, but it left me with enough respect and curiosity to have gone on picking up his latest. So here we have Nutshell, which I actually listened to on Audible, well read by Rory Kenner.
I knew more or less nothing about this novel when I started it, though I'd gathered the salient point that it was narrated by an eight-month foetus in the womb. Here's how it begins:
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. . . . I’m immersed in abstractions, and only the proliferating relations between them create the illusion of a known world. When I hear ‘blue,’ which I’ve never seen, I imagine some kind of mental event that’s fairly close to ‘green’ — which I’ve never seen. . . . I count myself an innocent, but it seems I’m party to a plot. My mother, bless her unceasing, loudly squelching heart, seems to be involved.
Would I be able to swallow this? Obviously it has to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. The baby is infuriatingly opinionated on everything from good wine to current affairs, and we are supposed to believe that this is because his mother Trudy is addicted to Radio Four and podcasts. Or not. The whole thing really is an enormous bit of fun, and if you take it any other way you'll be irritated or disappointed.
As for the plot - well, it's a crime story of sorts. An adulterous couple plan to kill the woman's husband and sell his immensely valuable London house, in which they are living. The baby, obviously, is party to all this, but infuriatingly unable to take any action. Forced to work out what's going on without any visual clues, it takes him a while to realise that his mother's lover is his uncle, his father's brother. Soon after his penny dropped, mine did too. Uncle Claude, mother Trudy, poison, son plots revenge? Yes of course, it's Hamlet. Once I got that, my enjoyment increased enormously. How closely would the novel stick to the original? What are the obvious links to the play?
Some of these are more obvious (and more convincing) than others. The poison was pretty obvious, though it took the form of a smoothie laced with antifreeze rather then a few drops in the ear. It was a little difficult to believe in the existence of a Danish takeaway offering 'baked meats' along with the open sandwiches and pickled herring, but I liked the baby's soliloquies, one of which seemed very close to Hamlet's 'What a piece of work is man'. Clever and funny, too, is the moment when he considers suicide and tries to hang himself with his own umbilical cord. We know from the play that 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark' - here, the house itself enacts this, its Georgian splendour marred by the terrible mess of spilled food and unwashed dishes which the couple completely ignore, being too busy having frantic (and, for the baby, very uncomfortable) sex or drinking gallons of wine and gin and tonics.
No doubt there's more. But let's suppose you don't know anything about Hamlet - will this be a dead loss? Definitely not. Clearly the links and allusions add some fun to the mix, but the story is strong enough to stand on its own. The psychology of the couple is well observed, their powerful sexual obsession and Claude's greed for his brother's valuable possession driving them on and blinding them to the implications of what they are planning to do. But after the deed comes the turning point, when the true nature of their relationship becomes clear. Claude is a brilliant creation, a man 'clever and dark and calculating' but also 'dull to the point of brilliance, vapid beyond invention . . . a man who whistles continually, not songs but TV jingles, ringtones . . . whose repeated remarks are a witless, thriftless dribble'. As for Trudy, her state of advanced pregnancy and her continual drinking put her into a frequently half-dazed state of mind, and she follows Claude down the dark lanes of his plotting, seemingly unquestioningly -- though there's a telling moment towards the end when we discover she has hidden his passport.
This is quite a short novel -- less than 200 pages or just over four hours of listening -- but it packs a tremendous amount into its concise length. Witty and thought-provoking, it ended up giving me a good deal of pleasure - why not see what you think?