Ian McEwan’s Nutshell must be one of the most anticipated novels of the year, not least because of its rather unorthodox central conceit – the narrator is a baby in utero. And reading it is certainly an unusual experience, a bit like watching one of those adverts (I’m thinking of Evian here, other waters are available) where babies are shown doing something most unbabylike. It’s all a bit surreal slash unsettling, but you can’t look away. McEwan’s baby narrator is imbued with not only the ability to speak and think but an awe-inspiring vocabulary and a preternatural knowledge that many adults would envy. There’s certainly no babyspeak in evidence. But as strange as it is to begin with, it soon becomes (worryingly) normal. And from his vantage point the baby not only muses on questions social, political and moral, but the fundamental story of the novel: his mother and uncle’s plot to kill his father, to which he has unfettered access, whether he wants to or not. And given McEwan’s epigraph from Hamlet that precedes the story, as well as the thinly veiled names of the characters themselves, the baby’s mother Trudy (Gertrude), and uncle Claude (Claudius), and the murder plot itself, the novel seems to be a very chimerical reimagining of the Shakespearean tragedy, although it’s certainly its own entity as well. Even the language and style recall Shakespeare: ‘Between his weakness and her deceit was the fetid crack that spontaneously generated a maggot-uncle’. Shakespeare indeed reincarnate. And McEwan’s novel is definitely a celebration of the literary word. But despite its wordiness, the plot and depth of the novel is surprisingly concise. At less than 200 pages, a novel in a nutshell, you might say, and for me, whilst it’s top marks on style and originality, the story itself felt too flat. But certainly a book worth reading to see what you make of it.
Jade Craddock 3/4
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
Jonathan Cape 1 Sep 2016 hbk
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The Schooldays Of Jesus by J M Coetzee – Man Booker Longlist 2016
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