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Told from a perspective unlike any other, "Nutshell"is a classic taleof murder and deceit from one of the world's master storytellers."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-07-25
- Reviewer: Staff
McEwan’s latest novel is short, smart, and narrated by an unborn baby. The narrator describes himself upside down in his mother’s womb, arms crossed, doing slow motion somersaults, almost full-term, wondering about the future. His mother listens to the radio, audiobooks, and podcasts, so just from listening he has acquired knowledge of current events, music, literature, and history. From experience, he’s formed opinions about wine and human behavior. What he’s learned of the world has him using his umbilical cord as worry beads, but his greatest concern comes from overhearing his mother and her lover plotting to kill his father. The mother, Trudy, is separated from John, the father. John is overweight, suffers from psoriasis, and, perhaps most annoying for Trudy, loves to recite poetry. Trudy’s lover, Claude, is a libidinous real estate developer who covets both John’s wife and their highly marketable London home. Claude also happens to be John’s brother. Echoes of Hamlet resound in the plans for fratricide, a ghost, and the baby’s contemplation of shuffling off his mortal coil. The murder plot structures the novel as a crime caper, McEwan-style—that is, laced with linguistic legerdemain, cultural references, and insights into human ingenuity and pettiness. Packed with humor and tinged with suspense, this gem resembles a sonnet the narrator recalls hearing his father recite: brief, dense, bitter, suggestive of unrequited and unmanageable longing, surprising, and surprisingly affecting. 150,000-copy announced first printing. (Sept.)
A womb with a view
In novels like Atonement and Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan has enjoyed playing tricks with questions of his narrator’s identity. His devilishly clever and darkly humorous novel Nutshell takes another step in that direction, revealing the arc of a bizarre murder plot from the point of view of the ultimate unreliable narrator: a child in utero, two weeks away from birth.
McEwan’s startlingly precocious protagonist lodges uneasily in the womb of Trudy Cairncross, who is separated from her husband John—an uninspired poet and owner of a modest poetry publishing house—and living in the decaying Georgian mansion in an upscale London neighborhood that was John’s childhood home. Trudy and her lover, Claude, a property developer who happens to be John’s younger brother, appear to have in common only their mutual lust (whose manifestations the narrator rather graphically describes from his own intimate perspective) and a shared desire to see John dead.
Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that Trudy and Claude’s scheme unfolds with all the deftness one would expect from a pair of amateur killers. Apart from his terror at the prospect of his father’s demise, the narrator has a dawning fear that he’s little more than an inconvenient afterthought in the conspirators’ minds. His own future may include spending some of his early days in prison and the rest of his childhood in a “brutal tower block.”
Whether it’s a “joyous, blushful Pinot Noir” or a “gooseberried Sauvignon,” the sense-deprived but enthusiastic narrator is given to precise cataloging of his mother’s wine consumption—clearly excessive for a woman in her third trimester, but understandable for one hoping to obliterate her consciousness of the terrible deed she and her lover are about to commit. He’s also a cheeky and surprisingly well-informed commentator on the problems of the world (owing, perhaps, to the podcasts his mother devours). For all that, he hungers to enter that world, imagining himself someday as an octogenarian ringing in the 22nd century: “Healthy desire or mere greed,” he muses, “I want my life first, my due, my infinitesimal slice of endless time and one reliable chance of a consciousness.”
In Nutshell, McEwan cleverly pulls off what might be little more than a gimmick in the hands of a lesser novelist. That he persuades us to suspend our disbelief so readily here is a testament to his consummate skill.