A bonkers premise, perhaps, but McEwan really pulls off this tale of an unborn foetus witnessing a murder.
DECIDING upon a starting point for a protagonist to begin their arc can be tricky for an author. Unless we are to go the route of some Russian epic, a key frame within the lifetime is probably best. As far as Ian McEwan, an author never seemingly constrained by the boundaries of normal fiction writing, is concerned, the foetal third trimester is as good a time as any to give voice to a main character. Why wait around for the first breadth, the first kiss or the axial crossroads of an adult life? It might as well be the birth canal itself that puts the “passage” into “rite of passage”.
The child inside the womb of a scheming ex-wife is for sure a novel voice and one that will guarantee that this 14th novel from the UK storytelling overlord has a place in many literary discussions this calendar year, and perhaps beyond.
At the start, it feels too much to witness an unborn contemplate fine wines snobbishly (“You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good burgundy (her favourite) or a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta”) or reel at the state of the world it is about to join and the nasty geopolitical and environmental ruin in the post. All this discernment, all this age-earned wisdom and reason has been gleaned from late-night radio documentaries received via the bedside dresser. McEwan has gone too far, you initially suspect.
And then it slowly happens. The outright absurdity of the premise falls to the side. The voice grows gills and begins to bite into Nutshell’s narrative course. Strong whiffs of Hamlet, unhidden by way of paternal ghosts, treacherous mothers and even Danish cuisine, are softly blown your way by McEwan’s mischief. This is an omnipresent but not omnipotent narrator, one that can contemplate and emote in its own way but is more or less powerless to intervene with anything other than a well-timed kick to the uterus wall.
Like the Prince of Denmark, “the mother” and her influence looms large. Trudy is heavily pregnant but still engaging in heated and wild bedroom activity with Claude, the brother of ex-husband John. John is the father and scrapes a living as a diligent small-time publisher of poetry. Claude, meanwhile, was always second best growing up, and like Claudius himself, rises to power via the demise of the brother. He is dull, shallow, trite and speaks in meaningless cliché. He is, however, an expert swordsman in the battlefield of lovemaking, as detailed in frankly hilarious passages of description from inside the hostess (“Not everyone knows what it’s like to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose … This turbulence would shake the wings off a Boeing”). The dim and mundane has cuckolded the noble and literate, McEwan notes of the modern world, and it very much takes two tango, might he add.
The London house they are in, the former marital abode, is worth a few bob, money that Trudy and Claude want to get their dirty hands on. John arrives to the house with a girl who is that bit too pretty, and the murderous seed muttered over by Trudy and Claude germinates into something real and very determined. The lodger in Trudy’s womb, privy to all her changes in blood pressure and mood, despairs at the prospect of his father dying at the hands of both his grunting, illiterate uncle (“when will he learn to speak without torturing me?”) and the person who means more to him than anything else in the universe.
Nutshell would be a harder sell were it not for its straight-up crime fiction DNA which gives a superstructure and builds to a very tastefully rendered crescendo that finds the foetus doing the only thing that it can in order to try to foil the plans. It also provides recesses for the child to consider what kind of world it will be entering and the dilemma that might be thrown its way should it succeed. A foster family or a life imprisoned with Mother Dearest could be inevitabilities of its determination to avenge the father and punish the mother. Hamlet had it easy by comparison.
Understandably, if you’d call it that, matters existential loom large and preoccupy the child’s bemusingly succinct thoughts. A long and thrillingly percussive rant about the ills of a “weak” Europe, the Middle East (“fast-breeder for a possible world war”), China (“too big to need friends of counsel”) and population explosion (“the urinous tsunami of the burgeoning old, cancerous and demented”) are concluded in this tiny brain as the product of humanity’s “twin natures” that it can relate to all too well – “clever and infantile”. “It’s dusk in the second age of reason,” McEwan’s homunculus drily concludes. Then, with tongue slightly in cheek (as it feels throughout this little delicious swagger of a novel), the author riffs from within about how we “excite ourselves with dark thoughts in plays, poems, novels and movies … Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived?”
At 68, McEwan has earned the right to use whatever mouthpiece he chooses to take aim at a world falling down around him, one populated for the most part by idiocy and greed to the point that even a child, unborn, unseeing and yet to take its first breath, can perceive it. The greatest trick he performs here is making it seem like the best vantage point there is.
First published in the Irish Independent