Book Review: “Nutshell” by Ian McEwan

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet II.ii

Nutshell (2016) is different. Ian McEwan’s novels always are. It’s hard to believe that Sweet Tooth (2012) and On Chesil Beach (2007) came from the same author. Though his books are all very British, he tells unique stories through different narration styles, tenses, and perspectives. I’ve enjoyed some of his novels more than others, but I can’t deny they are all technically exquisite. Like many McEwan fans, I started with Atonement (2001). Instead of being disappointed that none of his other novels resembled that modern classic, I was eager to see what the heck he would come up with next. I’ve read his novels as they’ve been released for about eight years now, and Nutshell is that “what the heck.”

Before I begin my review: a note on abortion. Nutshell is a creative novel using an original plot device to tell the story. McEwan calls Nutshell surrealism. He has explicitly stated that he was not making a pro-life statement, so neither will I. Other reviews have been written on the topic if you are interested. (National Review, Wall Street Journal)

hamletThen, after this bizarre disclaimer, what is Nutshell? It is a loose retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, from the point of view of an unborn fetus. This fetus, our little Hamlet, describes its burst of consciousness from the oceanic nothingness that was – and after its “it is/I am” moment becomes aware of its surroundings. Sometime in the third trimester, genderless at this point to itself, it begins to hear its mother speaking, as well the radio, television, podcasts. Though observation and curiosity, with its ear smushed again mother’s stomach, the baby begins to worry about its future. Mother spends her days with Claude, instead of father. Father is oblivious, mother is cunning, Claude seems insipid and dull.

The father, John, is a poet, deep in debt, kicked out of his family home, living in a flat, and waiting for his wife to take him back. He seems to still be desperately in love with his wife, and unable to recognize her boredom and irritation. Trudy, the mother, is beautiful and bored. John comes for lengthy visits, desperate to win her back. Trudy seems to have total disregard for him – and also for what’s growing inside of her. Is John also having an affair? Does he know about Trudy and Claude? Who will be responsible for the child? Our little Hamlet can’t tell, doesn’t know for sure. It can’t see any one, it can only hear and infer. It only knows father through the eyes of mother. 

With only two weeks till the unlucky infant’s introduction into our world, it begins to realize that something is seriously wrong. Claude is its uncle, not just a random “other” man. Claude and mother spend their days and nights plotting together. Often this plotting is in the shower, where the baby can’t make out the words. Often it is in whispers at night. Claude, who was believed to be too stupid to be malicious, begins to scare our narrator, who is becoming a silent witness to a crime and powerless to stop it.

Claude and Trudy (mother) are planning on killing John (father). That’s clear. With poison. Not so much of a spoiler alert: they succeed. But how then is an unborn baby, an immobile Hamlet with lungs but no voice, going to avenge his father? How is this kid, free of the womb but still unable to communicate, going to confront Claude?

The world that McEwan manages to build up is exquisite. The story is built as a psychological thriller. The reader wants to help, wants to figure out what the truth is. By creating such a immobile narrator, McEwan urges me to be involved. I wanted to solve the ending so that I could help. But how could I help? The setting of the novel is built through the contents of the womb and little Hamlet’s imaginings of what’s going on on the outside. It’s peppered with dreamy sequences and side rants, making it a truly surreal reading experience. Ever wondered what sex seems like to a third trimester narrator who listens to too many podcasts? This novel might turn off a lot of readers – the bizarre concept, the wishy-washy morals, the unlikable cast of characters. But it is so beautiful.

Looking at pure literary quality, it’s McEwan’s most impressive work since Atonement. It was easy to read and engrossing – it flowed. I think that phrase “it flowed” gets thrown around a lot, but Nutshell really did flow. It read like a poem, like a Shakespearean monologue. It’s original and classic at the same time. That’s what I love about McEwan. The bones of his novels are traditional, but the stories he tells are always so unconventional. His talent lies in taking a simple story and turning it into an epic, taking a little thought (like my favorite, On Chesil Beach) and turning it into a novel. He’s just a good writer.

Unlike his previous works, Nutshell takes more liberties with its narrator and world-building. Real 38-week babies have never pieced together the economic state of the EU by listening carefully to BBC World News, brought directly to the womb from mother’s earbuds. Although he has written many unconventional stories, Nutshell is the first that I’d classify as surrealism or even magical realism. I’m always glad to see literary authors dips their toes into the world of the uncanny or impossible. McEwan doesn’t seem out of his depths here in a genre which is bordering upon fabulism. It is definitely his most creative work so far. So now I will begin anticipating his next novel, hoping he can top this one. Who knows what it could be.

Sarah V Diehl

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