Nutshell by Ian McEwan
“So here I am, upside down in a woman,” opens Ian McEwan’s surprisingly successful new novel Nutshell, which is narrated by the unborn child of a nine-months-pregnant woman.
Readers may wince at this concept but it’s important to go back through the gestation of McEwan as a writer: he’s always been a champion of depravity and has always had a fetish for pairing high-literature stylings with the basest of concepts. His first novel, The Cement Garden, is about a house of four siblings incestuously role-playing a family unit after their parents pass away. His first story collection, In Between the Sheets, includes tales of pornographers and bestiality. Curiously, many of these stories (in particular “Reflections of a Kept Ape”) appear in McEwan’s 2012 thriller Sweet Tooth, penned by the hand of one of his characters, Tom Haley. The nostalgic, navel-gazing of Sweet Tooth seems to have stuck: Nutshell, whose unborn narrator listens as mother Trudy and her lover Claude plot to kill the child’s biological father, is vintage 70s McEwan, only refined with the skill of a seasoned veteran.
Nutshell’s narration is a marvel: the Shakespearean cuckoldry of Trudy and Claude’s affair is effortlessly matched in tone throughout the book. The novel scans beautifully with ornamental and at times hilariously highfalutin turns. When Trudy drinks her marital anxieties away, it’s wicked fun to read how “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.” Even the awkward moments of being “stuck in a woman”, like feeling the pressure of a full bladder against one’s head, or even worse, being internally proximate to a handful of sex scenes are rendered with dizzying finesse.
It’s tempting while reading Nutshell to grapple with what appears to be a heavy-handed pro-life agenda, but McEwan’s too good a writer to clearly show his stance. Instead, he gives his readers something far more nuanced to extrapolate. Nutshell’s narrator floats in a void that could just as abstractly be filled with a ghost. At times, Nutshell even feels about reincarnation, or a migration of souls. The liveliness of Nutshell’s narrator is one of knowledge, words transmitted through the ether with an almost biblical power. In seeking where life begins in Nutshell, readers instead will find this kind of knowledge everywhere, expanding far beyond, in both directions, past any single moment of inception. The life in Trudy’s womb is just as alive as a voice on her radio or podcast. It’s not the heartbeat that matters but the ideas. And these ideas will overcome any attempts to find footing among social or ethical issues.
Unfortunately the wonderful conceptual side of Nutshell is rooted by a clichéd double-cross and talk of poison, with characters driven by the high price of Trudy’s marital house. McEwan has always had trouble with his endings, and Nutshell is no exception. Readers who were frustrated with a few turns of plot in works like The Innocent and Amsterdam will find parts of Nutshell undesirably familiar. For a novel so fresh, and so stunningly successful in its experimentation, Nutshell is far too light on its non-conceptual substance. This imbalance slightly weakens what could have been a miraculously great novel.
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