Book of the Day: “Nutshell” by Ian McEwan
In novels like Atonement and Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan has enjoyed playing tricks with questions of his narrator’s identity. His devilishly clever and darkly humorous novel Nutshell takes another step in that direction, revealing the arc of a bizarre murder plot from the point of view of the ultimate unreliable narrator: a child in utero, two weeks away from birth.
McEwan’s startlingly precocious protagonist lodges uneasily in the womb of Trudy Cairncross, who is separated from her husband John—an uninspired poet and owner of a modest poetry publishing house—and living in the decaying Georgian mansion in an upscale London neighborhood that was John’s childhood home. Trudy and her lover, Claude, a property developer who happens to be John’s younger brother, appear to have in common only their mutual lust (whose manifestations the narrator rather graphically describes from his own intimate perspective) and a shared desire to see John dead.
Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that Trudy and Claude’s scheme unfolds with all the deftness one would expect from a pair of amateur killers. Apart from his terror at the prospect of his father’s demise, the narrator has a dawning fear that he’s little more than an inconvenient afterthought in the conspirators’ minds. His own future may include spending some of his early days in prison and the rest of his childhood in a “brutal tower block.”
Whether it’s a “joyous, blushful Pinot Noir” or a “gooseberried Sauvignon,” the sense-deprived but enthusiastic narrator is given to precise cataloging of his mother’s wine consumption—clearly excessive for a woman in her third trimester, but understandable for one hoping to obliterate her consciousness of the terrible deed she and her lover are about to commit. He’s also a cheeky and surprisingly well-informed commentator on the problems of the world (owing, perhaps, to the podcasts his mother devours). For all that, he hungers to enter that world, imagining himself someday as an octogenarian ringing in the 22nd century: “Healthy desire or mere greed,” he muses, “I want my life first, my due, my infinitesimal slice of endless time and one reliable chance of a consciousness.”
In Nutshell, McEwan cleverly pulls off what might be little more than a gimmick in the hands of a lesser novelist. That he persuades us to suspend our disbelief so readily here is a testament to his consummate skill.
This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of BookPage.