‘So here I am, upside down in a woman,’ are the opening words of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell and the voice of the embryonic narrator, which sets the tone for this retake on Hamlet, though not as Shakespeare knew it.
Forget any thought of ancient Danish kingdoms, of kings and queens. Instead visualise a £4m London property, albeit falling apart, stinking and rotten with uncleared rubbish and piles of unwashed clothes. Its inhabitants are a love tangle of poet husband, vacuous brother and bored wife who has abandoned lovelorn poetry recitations for the sexual shenanigans of the vacuous brother.
Forget also any thoughts of the innocence of infancy. This unnamed foetus has absorbed, as if by osmosis, the tawdry world of his mother Trudy and her lover Claude. Umbellically conjoined with the fickle Trudy, he condemns her while he cannot help but give her his love, dependent as he is on her for his survival.
Nearing the end of his nine-month residency, the child (thanks to his host) has become a wine afficionado, a gastronome and slightly alarmed (now that his mother’s womb has become rather a tight fit) at the threat the couple’s varied love-making poses to him. Still unborn, he is philosopher and wit and through what he hears filtered through his mother’s abdomen, knowledgeable about the world and its quirks. ‘In the middle of a long, quiet night I might give my mother a sharp kick. She’ll wake, become insomniac, reach for the radio. Cruel sport, I know, but we are both better informed by the morning.’
But there is one piercing anxiety in the mind of the unborn child. He cannot help hearing Trudy and Claude planning the death of his father. How can the unborn son of this broken marriage prevent such a monstrosity, or at the very least avenge it?
Nutshell lives up to its title. A relatively short novel, it is packed with touches of humour, humanity, twists and turns of plot and, above all, suspense that swells to an unbearable level by the final denouement.
Ian McEwan usually surprises and sometimes shocks, but above all involves his readers at different intellectual and dramatic levels. Nutshell is no exception. I found it 199 pages of sheer delight.
Jane Pearson was a writer, press officer and freelance journalist. Retired now, she lives in Abergynolwyn, walks her dog in the hills and tends her garden.