Nutshell by Ian McEwan – book review

by Edith Cody-Rice

nutshell-by-ian-mcewanShakespeare is in vogue these days and not just in Stratford, Ontario. Margaret Atwood has come out with a rewriting of the Tempest for modern times: Hag-Seed, and Ian McEwan’s latest offering in Nutshell is a rewrite of Hamlet; however, instead of an ineffectual Danish prince, the protagonist is an unborn fetus, trapped in his mother’s womb. The title comes from Hamlet’s discourse with Rosencrantz in which he says,

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

The setting is posh London rather than the kingdom of Denmark, the prize a dilapidated but valuable house (the kingdom), the mother is Trudy (for Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude) and the villain usurper Trudy’s lover and brother-in- law Claude (for Shakespeare’s Claudius). Trudy and Claudius plan to murder the fetus’ estranged dad who is living in Shoreditch, possibly with his poetry student Elodie (for Ophelia, presumably). He has been ejected from his inherited house (kingdom) by Trudy and Claude. The fetus overhears everything and must decide whether to avenge.

This is a very sophisticated fetus, with a great knowledge of the world, some philosophy (picked up on podcasts through his mother’s tummy) and a wine snob to boot with a great sense of terroir. Nothing like a Pouilly-Fumé filtered through a placenta.

As McEwan himself said in a CBC interview, either you buy in early or you don’t. He said he was asked in interviews in the United States whether this was a prolife book and replied that they would be in deep trouble if they based public policy on books such as this. He is just having fun. The idea came to him when he had a conversation with his pregnant daughter-in-law and realized that there was a third person in the room, present but unrecognized.

I sort of bought in. I initially thought this a concept that just couldn’t work but was later amused  by the erudite fetus and interested in how the plot would work out, and, let’s face it – McEwan is a superb writer and worth a read even if you don’t like the basic idea. I didn’t fully buy in though and have my reservations about this book, but I have canvassed friends, voracious readers all, who absolutely loved it, so do recommend it. In my mind, Atonement is still McEwan’s  greatest work.