Book review: Nutshell, Ian McEwan

By David Hill

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Author Ian McEwan. Photo / NZ Herald
Author Ian McEwan. Photo / NZ Herald

Ian McEwan's narrators have often been edgy, fractured, disturbed or disturbing, but none has come near the voice that drives his latest novel. It's the voice of a nearly full-term foetus, still growing within the womb.

He - a "shrimp-like protuberance" establishes gender early on - busily absorbs details of the outside, imminent world via overheard conversations, podcasts and umbilical information. It's contemporary, carnivorous London, where mum-to-be Trudy has done the dirty on poet husband John, and moved in with his brother Claude. They're planning a fraud and a murder, as one does (or two do).

Our narrator hears all, even half-sees some, as light shifts outside his warm, wet home. So his voice transgresses the Laws of Nature and possibility? So what? In McEwan's virtuoso hands, it anticipates your objections ("I've got no choice, my ear is pressed against the bloody walls"), encourages suspension of disbelief and allows the plot to pace along. It's a triumph.

You noticed the names of mum and lover? Yes, this is Hamlet re-wrought.

Quotations, paraphrases, semi-soliloquies, synopses thread it, always ingeniously, sometimes floridly. A rearranged Ophelia droops in then storms back to hint at revenge.

It's a busy life in-utero. Our nameless narrator (well, one name fills the reader's mind) keeps in shape by slow-motion tumbles; uses his birth-cord as a rosary. He frets about global warming and foetal alcohol syndrome.

He's a bit of a wine buff. He ponders the unreliability of maternal love, the harsh configurations that await him.

He's eloquent, ironic and funny: "My appointment diary notes only my forthcoming birthday."

In their squalid but financially soaring townhouse, Trudy and Claude drink, plot and lust.
She's a beautiful, glitteringly amoral airhead; he's a man of empty gestures with a whiff of sulphur, someone who whistles ring-tones and TV jingles, "knows only clothes and cars".

Yet, as in Shakespeare, it's the doomed father who's the most absorbing character. What are his weaknesses? How tedious is his virtue? Is he actually more devious than the two clunky conspirators?

The plot is permeated with the typically McEwan weld of physical shock and psychological examination, of underworld and inner world - rather more inner than usual. The incongruity of the two gives the narrative energy, ambivalence, anxiety.

Tension rules. Outcomes are uncertain, all the way to the Grand Guignol, marginally facile ending of birth, screams, withheld passports and door-bangings.

Nutshell assumes its readers will be literate, thoughtful and cultured. You have to like that. It also displays the benefits that brevity brings: details are sharp; style crystalline, developments swift. You never labour through a McEwan novel. You have to like that, too.

NUTSHELL
by Ian McEwan
(Jonathan Cape, $38)

- Weekend magazine

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