It is quickly apparent that Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s 17th novel, is a re-working of the tale of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s tragedy about usurpation and revenge, extending from plot to characters to themes – but with the critical twist that the Prince of Denmark is replaced here by an unborn child, critically observing events from inside the womb. Here, the narrator, un-named and of non-determined gender, is indeed ‘bound in a nutshell’ and yet ‘king of infinite space’. As such, the child – with thought processes, critical faculties and tastes which are fully developed, informed trough the consumption and habits of Trudy, the mother – is able to observe and comment on the surrounding universe. Yet, in contrast to Hamlet, whose flaw of inaction underpins his personal tragedy, the baby is able to seek to be active and influential in the world, including via well-timed kicks and sometimes quite shocking extensions of the narrative.
McEwan’s conceit is quite remarkable – imagine the (eventual) frustrations of a baby with fully developed thought processes but unaware in the womb that s/he is unable to speak – and in our unborn narrator we have another in the author’s long line of memorable characters. The prose, as we might expect, flows freely and apparently effortlessly; the handling of plot and theme is confident and assured; and there is wit and humour in the telling as well as in the conceit. The narration itself is informed, eloquent and ultimately reliable – indeed, how could it be anything other?
Excess alcohol consumption – in Hamlet’s view, the cause of the ruination of the nation – is worked in by the continual appearance and consumption of bottles of wine (although, amusingly, the plot hinges on a juice bar’s smoothie); the portentousness of the moments in which people’s futures are shaped and directed by the sometimes hasty decisions they make is, again – this being a regular theme in McEwan’s books – stunningly realised; and the resolution is thoughtfully and aptly described.
Of course, something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark – not, in this context, in the womb of the mother but in the dilapidated state of the decaying, crumbling house in the midst of the heat of a London summer in which she lives and which is visually well-captured by McEwan. The metaphor is clear – and yet the platform it provides for well-chosen observations about the state of the world around us, akin to Hamlet’s own soliloquies, is something that McEwan doesn’t effectively take up. It is not that there are currently no targets to pick – and McEwan has done so in the past: notably, global warming in Solar; and the state of international relations in the context of the ‘war on terror’ in Saturday. Here, however, the discourse on the targets he picks – chiefly, the human condition leading to it being ‘dusk in the Age of Reason’; the struggle to escape poverty; identity politics – is lazy, occasionally somewhat illiberal and actually rather peevish. It’s not the result of having an unborn child as narrator – this is a middle-class sophisticate, advanced and articulate in thought. Perhaps it is the essential brevity of the exposition – this is a short novel and these are indeed mere soliloquies – that make it seem so. Perhaps he thinks he’s done it all before. But McEwan is of course capable of better than that; and, in these times, we do need the poets (as well as the novelists) down here to write something (at all) to help prompt us into action.
Nevertheless, the central challenge – that we all ‘do something’, whatever we can, to change the fate of the world around us – is, if it is one that may even be taken up by an unborn child, one that can also be picked up by others seemingly otherwise better placed. The conveyance, perhaps implicit, of that ultimate message is McEwan’s biggest contribution in Nutshell – and it does, of course, remain a fundamentally important one.