I’m being generous with three stars. I say this because while I love the way Ian McEwan crafts sentences, there are parts of Nutshell that could have been completely excised and the story would have been all the better for it. This makes the fourth novel by McEwan I’ve read. The first, Atonement, I hold in the highest regard as one of the most finely-crafted novels ever published in the English language. Likewise, On Chesil Beach and The Children Act were excellent reads with a lot to say about the human condition. These other novels had characters which were fully-human and expertly-drawn. In short, they were believable. When I was reading about them and their lives I felt as if I were spending time with people who were real and had something important to say. Not so with Nutshell.
Nutshell, which reimagines Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a fetus in his mother’s womb, is narrated by the unnamed fetus. His (the fetus, of course) perception of events and knowledge of the world is based entirely on what he picks up from inside of his mother, Trudy. He also seems to inherently hold the opinions and worldviews of a conservative middle-class Englishman, but we’ll ignore that for now. He learns during the course of the novel of a plot concocted by Trudy and his Uncle Claude (Judy’s lover) to murder John Cairncross, his father and Judy’s estranged husband.
John Cairncross is a tenderhearted man, an Englishman of the most delicate sensibilities. A poet without honor in his own home yet held in high esteem among his peers and acolytes, John lacks the financial success or critical acclaim that would elevate him outside of his own circle. Claude, however, is John’s antithesis: a crude man of pedestrian tastes and baser instincts, with few concerns above money, sex, food, and drink. He’s a brute wholly convinced of his own virility, disdainful of all who don’t ascribe to his own particular brand of traditional masculinity.
We’re meant to dislike him and Trudy as well. But to be perfectly honest, Trudy is the only character in the novel I found to be redeemable. Her flaws are not those which provoke disgust in the reader, at least not this one. Claude and John, and the unnamed fetus, which is presumably male, are each dislikable in their own ways. This is not to say that literature is or should be a popularity contest, it’s just worth mentioning here. Another thing that I thought about while reading Nutshell is the fact that, while all fiction requires the reader to suspend disbelief to one degree or another, this is usually done so that the reader may reap some type of reward. Whether the reward is the inherent pleasure found in the act of reading itself, something worthwhile gained in the reading, or even something else less describable, we all read for a purpose. Oftentimes, we bring multiple purposes to the same text. Information, entertainment, leisure, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t really get anything out of Nutshell.
That’s it in a nutshell.
Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at email@example.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.