From the best-selling author of Atonement, Nutshell is a classic story of murder and deceit, told by a narrator with a perspective and voice unlike any in recent literature. A bravura performance, it is the finest recent work from a true master. To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand. Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavour is just a speck in the universe of possible things?
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This was my sixth novel by Ian McEwan, and though I'd be hard-pressed to say which has been my favourite so far, it's safe to say "Nutshell" now ranks among my favourite novels of all time. This is one of those audiobooks I felt the need to take on much-hated household chores for, just so I could have a long stretch of listening time, and I listened to this audiobook in one extended, fascinating session (the house looks much better for it too).
A modern and loose retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet, it has all the elements of high drama and theatrics you'd expect from the Bard, but whether you're 'into' Shakespeare, or even familiar with the original play or not hardly matters. Here is a very clever thriller about two lovers plotting murder for entirely selfish motives, the whole of which is narrated by a yet unborn foetus. An unusual and not especially credible narrator you might say, but then I've read books narrated by trees, dogs and horses among other things: the greatest reward comes if you're willing to suspend disbelief and go along with the story.
Trudy and her husband John are currently separated, though they are expecting their first child. The expecting mother claims she needs 'time to herself', but really, she just wants to keep the coast clear in the London marriage home that John inherited from his parents so that she and her lover Claude (who just happens to be John's younger brother) can indulge in frequent passionate sex and even more frequent plotting sessions. John must be gotten rid of, so they can get their hands on the fortune the sale of the house will bring, and nothing is going to get in their way. Possibly.
Our narrator has clearly inherited a large dose of his father's creative genius—John is a published poet and publisher, and baby expresses himself beautifully and with great wit, quotes famous literary authors and happens to be a wine aficionado thanks to his mother's frequent imbibing of fine vintages. He hates and mistrusts his uncle Claude, and for good reason. Apart from Claude possibly wanting to be rid of another man's baby, he's also an insufferable bore whose conversation is entirely made up of platitudes and boring clichés; not clear is whether Claude is a complete fool, or cleverly hiding his true self.
I've seen Rory Kinnear perform in Shakespeare plays, and his Iago, the great villain in Othello, was especially chilling. Here he brings all his talent to give voice to baby and all the other protagonists, and it's a brilliant performance.
But why am I using so many words? I should just copy/paste my spontaneous reaction when I finished the book, which I shared on Facebook:
"THIS BOOK IS BLOODY BRILLIANT!!! Hurry up and get your hands on it, and I defy you to NOT take it all in in one go. Also, if you're considering trying audiobooks, then this is one to go with, brilliantly performed by the fantastic Rory Kinnear, who is among other things, a superb Shakespeare actor, which is entirely fitting for a book referencing Hamlet. But wait! It's a thriller! Narrated by a foetus! With horrible people doing horrible things (plotting murder most foul), in most amusing ways. And needless to say, this being Ian McEwan, beautifully, beautifully written. I loved this book so much, I hurried up to purchase my own audio copy right after having listened to a library loaner. Kinnear's performance is definitely a keeper (and may he narrate many more remarkable books like this one).
McEwan's latest novel (more a novella, really) is a wickedly funny riff on Hamlet. "So here I am, upside down in a woman," the narrator--a fetus--begins. (He's "bound in a nutshell," so to speak.) If you're going to enjoy this book, you have to be willing to go with this premise; if you keep asking how a fetus could have such an extensive vocabulary and sophisticated thoughts, or how he could know so much about what is going on in the world outside the womb, you'll miss the fun.
Trudy is roughly nine months pregnant. Although she separated from her husband John, a not very successful poet and publisher, she still lives in the dilapidated family home in London that he inherited., while John has moved to a flat in Shoreditch. Trudy initially told him that they needed time apart to make the marriage work--but she is deep into an affair with his younger brother Claude, a real estate developer (who has about the same level of class as the current Republican presidential candidate). Despite her advanced pregnancy, Trudy and Claude engage in regular and vigorous sex, leaving our narrator to worry that he will have his fontanel poked in or will absorb some essence of the deplorable Claude into his being. He does, however, enjoy the finer wines that his mother imbibes and has developed quite the connoisseur's palate.
The trouble begins when John announces that he knows about and accepts Trudy and Claude's relationship, confesses that he has a new lover of his own, and states that he wants to move back into the family home. The plot thickens as Trudy and Claude decide that John must go--permanently. And our narrator is positioned to eavesdrop on their plans to murder his father and give him up for adoption. If Shakespeare's Hamlet was hampered by indecision, well, this protagonist is even more incapacitated by his unborn state. Literally and emotionally attached to his mother (he experiences every hormonal and adrenal shift), he is nonetheless horrified by the plot against his father's life and by the thought of Trudy giving him up to live with the detested Claude.
In addition to the obvious parallels to Hamlet, McEwan weaves well-known lines from the play into Nutshell, although the words are sometimes put into the mouths of unexpected characters and sometimes subtly changed, a word here or there. If you're familiar with the play, the effect is delightful--reminiscent of the way in which famous lines by the Bard keep popping up in Tom Stoppard's screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love." And McEwan brings it all to a climax that, in its own context, rivals the final scene of Hamlet. "The rest is chaos."