Book review, Literary criticism

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan

British novelist, Ian McEwan

McEwan’s first published work, First Love, Last Rites, appeared in 1975; another short story collection, In Between the Sheets, appeared in 1978 then two short novels, The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981). My then he was known as “Ian Macabre” for the subject matter in his work. An early story is about a love affair between a writer and her pet ape told from the ape’s point of view; another concerns a disgruntled husband who discovers a technique of body manipulation that results in the person disappearing into himself; he tries this on his wife during sex.

His work settled down a little but there is always something dark at the centre of his stories. His three most accomplished works belong to this latter period; Enduring Love (1997) which concerns a science writer being stalked by a disturbed man: both of whom witness a horrendous accident involving a hot-air balloon; one of the most suspenseful and superbly written opening chapters you can ever hope to read, rendered rather ho-hum by the 2004 film starring Daniel Craig; Atonement (2001) in which a young girl witnesses her sister having sex but misconstrues it as an assault and ruins her sister’s and lover’s lives, which the young girl, as a grown-up novelist, atones for by writing about it but with a happy ending. This was superbly adapted as a film in 2007 with Keira Knightly and James McAvoy. And Saturday (2005), a day in the life of a neurosurgeon who is confronted on the street by a man, who, as recognised by the surgeon, has a neurological disorder; the mentally ill man then menacingly invades the surgeon’s home.

He won the Booker Prize for a slim volume called Amsterdam in 1998, about a pact between two male friends who re-connect at the funeral of a shared lover, and he was nominated again for On Chesil Beach (2007) which begins with the wedding night of an extremely sexually naïve couple. I was so embarrassed for them, McEwan’s writing was truly effective, that I shut the book at page 6 and have never opened it since.

His 2014 novel, The Children Act, confronts a modern dilemma involving personal faith and medical intervention. You can read my blog on this here.

Nutshell, is another slim work, –  nothing wrong with that – which begins with a superb, but short, opening line – I’ll leave it for you to discover. It is basically about the planning and execution of the murder of a poet, John, by his estranged wife, Trudy, and her lover, his younger brother, Claude. The identity of the narrator of this murderous pact by two unpleasant but intriguing people is the crux here: John and Trudy’s unborn foetus. Generally a reader can accept all of what a writer conjures, and this is the main ask a writer makes; however this foetus prefers a Sancerre, preferably from Chavignol, over a grassy Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand; loves the radio; tends to use Latin and French in lieu of English when the urge arises; insists on words like ‘youngly’; is intimate with the physics of sound and the work of 20th century composers; clearly au fait with the intricacies of human sexual behaviour and romantic attachment; has a fine understanding of poetics, and has studied the psychological preferences of murderers, all garnered it seems from BBC Radio podcasts favoured by his mother. But if you have made your narrator a foetus then it is de rigueur to make him an intelligent one; no use boring your readers with goo goo and gar gar. Although how much suspension of disbelief is too much?

It feels like a short story s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d into a novella: too much about the self-absorbed (and observed) narrator and not enough about the protagonists. But then how is he to know? It’s a dilemma McEwan side-steps. However, if you accept without question what the writer throws at you it’s an entertaining and amusing read.

The title comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the continued illusion to that work – the main players, the victim, John Cairncross, A.S. Cairncross is famous for a 1936 book entitled The Problem of Hamlet, the mother, Ger(Trudy) and the usurper, (Claude)ius, (get it?) – still doesn’t raise it above a minor work. Let’s hang out for the next one.

You can find all editions, including the ebook, here.

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