Ian McEwan’s latest novel, published in 2016, „Nutshell” is in a way a modern “adaptation” of Hamlet. Only in a way as the story is set in the 21st century, and the circumstances in which we learn about characters are rather unusual and deceitful. Reading the novel, you could rephrase the eternal question „To Be or Not To Be” and from now on ask „To Be Born or Not To Be Born”.
A lthough the story itself and all the circumstances you learn with every page are quite unusual, they are not the most interesting things about the novel. A protagonist and a narrator at the same time is the most unusual part of the book. He doesn’t have a name; he even doesn’t have his birthday yet, as he is still an unborn child.
So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.
The fetus is McEwan’s protagonist, who tells the story or rather describes the surrounding world, and the characters he happens to „meet”. His connection to the outside world is his mother’s body. Through her hormones, muscles, body movements, and sounds from the outside he learns the world to which he, one day, is going to be born as well as factors changing the course of his future life. The fetus, whenever he’s sober, for his mother likes to have a glass or two of wine as she believes she should drink for two, has quite mature views and is incredibly insightful of the outside world. His mother, Trudy (Gertrud in Hamlet) is notoriously listening to podcasts considering them the best source of knowledge thus allowing her unborn child acquire the same grasp of the world. She is listening to the podcasts everywhere and every time.
“Nutshell”, however, is not a narrative of fetus’ projections and imaginations. It is his record as he witnesses a planned crime committed in a family house in St. Jonh’s Wood. McEwan reveals the story and the course of action gradually as the protagonist learns it, discovering more and more disturbing facts. Among others, though I think the most shocking fact to the fetus is who the victim and the murderer is. At some point, he starts realizing that Trudy planes to kill John, his own father. This unbelievable revelation is not the only that he has to face. His father is deeply in love with Trudy, and the only thing he is really hoping for is to get her back. John as an unfulfilled poet, a mentor to younger than himself aspiring dreamers who yearn for becoming great artists, doesn’t seem to meet Trudy’s ambitions for wealth and success. Despite her aversion and even distaste toward John, he is so devoted to her that when they split or rather Trudy decides to break with him, he let her stay at this beautiful house which he inherited from his parents. He, on the other hand, moves to a small, uncomfortable flat. John is so blind in his devotion and hopes that he doesn’t realize all his effort is worthless since Trudy has entirely different plans.
With the same surprise, the protagonist discovers the identity of Trudy’s lover and companion in crime. He considers Trudy’s boyfriend, Claude (Claude in Hamlet) a threat not only to his physical health but also to his intellectual development. That’s how fetus describes his encounter with his mother’s lover
On every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence, with the teeming cream of his banality. Then, brain-damaged, I’ll think and speak like him. I’ll be the son of Claude.
Claude is described by fetus as an immature fool who is only acquainted with cars and clothes and his speech is an encyclopedia of banality. In the novel he is the obvious villain, conspiring with Trudy against her husband, and at the same time against his own brother. The grant plan of those two is to get John out of the picture and sell the house. Potential, lucrative income from the transaction. Trudy bored with her husband is fascinated and blinded by Claude’s simple and primitive approach to life.
At some point when the things go too far the fetus decides to oppose the conspiracy and stop her mother before she makes the most terrible, from his perspective, mistake. However, imagine what actions the protagonist can take to do anything about adult’s plans. Being in the position where he has almost no influence, and terrifying events are happening in the outside world he only can observe them with fear for his own destiny, and with irony and sarcasm imagine his future life.
„Nutshell” is a combination of crime, irony, abstraction and unutterably eloquent and mature narrator – eight-month-old fetus. This incredible intelligence of protagonist and it’s thoughtful narrative might be unnatural and even sometimes irritating. However, I’d argue that it’s McEwan’s conscious decision to create this kind of narrative voice. It’s as if inexperienced in real life and less shaped by norms, desires, and patterns protagonist is actually more mature than his mother and uncle. Being free of all the limitations and thinking models thus he can truly and clearly be an insightful viewer. Moreover, his imagination of the outside world and perception of current events is humorous. This strange mixture of plot, protagonist, humor makes the novel a good read, enjoyable and entertaining.