Date finished: October 18th 2016
I’ve written before of my ambivalent relationship with Ian McEwan. He’s a writer of obvious talent, yet he often leaves me cold. Amsterdam was a beautifully written novel, whose third act fell into disappointing absurdity, The Comfort of Strangers and The Cement Garden were both intriguing novellas that struggled to pull themselves above mediocrity. Most recently, I read On Chesil Beach, which I enjoyed more. It seemed that this later work of McEwan’s was more nuanced and fully-realised than his earlier works and, therefore, it may be that I’ll enjoy his contemporary novels more.
I’ve been struggling to keep on top of my reading lately. A lot of the novels I’ve gone for are on ludicrously heavy subjects and require a lot more concentration than I currently have. I knew I needed a short novel. I also have a friend who likes Ian McEwan a lot more than I do, and insisted that I borrow his copy of Nutshell. You can see where this is going.
Nutshell tells the story of mother-to-be Trudy, who is having an affair with the banal Claude in the marital home she has wrested from her eager-to-please husband John, a poet. Trudy and Claude have hatched a plan to do away with the problem of John and start over again, but there’s a witness to their nefarious plotting: our narrator, Trudy’s unborn child.
Yes, you heard me, the protagonist is a foetus, floating around in amniotic fluid, telling his tale with a pomposity beyond the usual remit of a gestating embryo. Like Markus Zusak’s Death narrating The Book Thief, an unborn baby is a somewhat pretentious gambit to play, but McEwan makes it work. Our narrator is very much limited by the confines of its nascent existence, and we’re always acutely aware of its place in the scheme of things (not least when it elucidates the sordid details of the affair: “Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose“). It is, however, somewhat off-putting and even annoying that the unborn child is already a member of the liberal middle class – he enjoys fine wine and listening to Reith Lectures. One could be forgiven for expecting Trudy to one day give birth to a copy of The Observer rather than an actual flesh-and-blood human baby.
However, this mode of narration serves its purpose: to provide a unique perspective on a tale of immorality and murder. Our narrator is the fly on the wall in this circumstance – able to elucidate, to judge, to intellectualise, but simultaneously the unborn shares the fate of the protagonists – it’s an experiment in predestination: he cannot change his fate, only watch it emerge.
But that’s all it is: an experiment. Like much of McEwan’s work, it doesn’t really have any point beyond exploration of its own abstraction. He takes the interesting idea of ‘what if an unborn baby narrated a story?’ and runs with it. It’s an original perspective, but that’s all it is. McEwan writes with panache and is a master of his craft – but his craft is intellectualising and he’s a great writer on the micro-level, not the macro-level: a wordsmith, not a storyteller. There’s gorgeous prose, a moderately-accommodating plot, decadent upper class twattery, and an intriguing take on narration, but that’s more or less it. Nutshell achieves the few goals it sets itself and, though it’s worth a read for the concept, it ultimately joins my “Frustrating Mediocrity” pile along with the rest of McEwan’s work.