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Ian McEwan: Nutshell

I have not really enjoyed Ian McEwan’s recent work so I had my doubts about this one. Nutshell is narrated by a foetus. McEwan has claimed that this is a first. It is not. Others have mentioned Carlos FuentesCristóbal Nonato (Christopher Unborn) but I would also mention another book published earlier his year: Sarah Cohen-Scali’s Max as well as Clifford Henderson’s Spanking New and Thomas Keneally’s Passenger. There is also the film Daughters of the Dust. In short it is not a new idea.

I must say that I did enjoy this book more than most of his previous ones. It does have the conceit of a conscious, rational and highly erudite foetus but as well as just taking that conceit for granted, as good novelists must do in their creations, it is also useful for the author, as the foetus is, not surprisingly, our old friend the unreliable narrator. The foetus in question – we do not know his name, of course, but we do know that he is male – is the future son of John and Trudy Cairncross, their first child. John is a not very successful poet (and, as far as the foetus knows from his mother, a not very good one) but also the editor of a poetry imprint and a poetry teacher. In other words, he does not make much money. Trudy is in her third trimester. The couple have separated. Trudy is living in John’s family home – a somewhat dilapidated and very untidy mansion near St. John’s Wood (which means that it is worth a lot of money; a figure of £7 million pounds is mentioned). John is living in a bedsit in Shoreditch, distinctly lower down the scale than St. John’s Wood.

Trudy is not on her own. She has a boyfriend, called Claude. Initially, the foetus does not know who Claude is or what his surname is. He only knows that he seems to be well-off and has made his money from property development. He also knows that the couple are plotting some dirty deed which involves poison. The foetus puts two and two together and assumes – correctly in this case – that they are plotting to murder John. The situation takes a new twist when the foetus discovers the identity of Claude. Claude is his uncle, John’s brother. We learn that there had been sibling rivalry since they were young. John was taller, better-looking, more intelligent and more likeable. The only thing Claude could do better was make money and he did. As far as the foetus is aware (and as far as Claude and Trudy are aware), John does not know that his brother is cuckolding him.

Claude has a house in Primrose Hill (also expensive) but visits Trudy regularly. Apart from plotting, they do three things: have sex, drink and sleep. Not surprisingly, the foetus does not like them having sex. Apart from the fact that he objects most strongly to having his mothers lover’s penis close to him, it shakes him up somewhat. He does, however, enjoy the wine. Given that Trudy is in her third trimester, she drinks an inordinate amount of wine, which must be bad for both baby and mother but neither she nor her future son seem concerned. The foetus has become something of a wine expert and recognises the different types and even where they come from. Like his mother and her lover, he sleeps and that is often when he seems to miss key discussions.

The foetus follows developments of the plot but cannot determine every detail. It seems to involve putting anti-freeze into a smoothie which is John’s favourite drink and then getting him to drink it. The first wrinkle is when John turns up with Elodie. He announces that he knows about Claude and Trudy, that he and Elodie are an item and that he is planning to return to his house the next day and Trudy must move out and move in with Claude. This, of course, upsets the plans of Trudy and Claude as well as causing surprise to Trudy, Claude and the foetus.

Things get more complicated when Claude and Trudy try to expedite their plan, to get John to drink the poisonous mixture the next day. But will the police really think it is suicide or is there something they have missed?

Everything we see, we learn from the foetus, the narrator. Though obviously he cannot see outside, at times he does seem to. He listens carefully to what Trudy and Claude are saying but sometimes misses things, either because he is asleep or cannot hear properly. As a result, he often draws conclusions that are wrong, though he does work out what Trudy and Claude are up to. He is naturally concerned for the father he has yet to meet, fantasises about what he might do to Claude when he is born and becomes an adult, and is concerned about his own fate. Claude says that he he might be placed and he has horrible visions of what this might mean. His relationship with his mother is ambiguous. He states that he loves her, though he has not, of course, seen her, but is clearly concerned about what she is planning, not least when she says I want him dead.

This is definitely a clever novel and an improvement on his recent works. Having a talking, intelligent, almost worldly foetus, while not, as I have shown above, particularly original, certainly works well in this book, not least because all we can do is to follow what he sees. However, as I said with regards to his last novel and, indeed, the one before that, if this novel had not been written by McEwan, would I and many others have read it? The answer, I am afraid, remains as before – probably not.

Publishing history

First published 2016 by Jonathan Cape