Acclaimed as the modern Hamlet, Ian McEwan reaches Shakespearean levels of genius in his recent novel, Nutshell. The first McEwan novel I read was Atonement, a timeless war-time romance that entranced me. Yet, McEwan has proved that he is unlimited in his ability to master every genre of literature. It is therefore unsurprising that The Daily Telegraph included McEwan in the list of the “100 most powerful people in British culture” following his undeniably innovative plots and his captivating style.
Nutshell revolves around the pregnant Trudy and her boyfriend Claude as they plot to kill John, the husband of Trudy. John is also the father of the child, and scandalously, Claude’s brother. While this may seem to be a trivial plot, the entire novel is narrated by the unborn child. This in-utero narrator thus provides a revealing and satirical commentary, as Trudy and Claude plan to poison his father. The narrator is consistently disgusted by his uncle Claude as he appears as a mindless, sex-obsessed slob throughout the entire novel. While the narrator never meets his father John, he appears as a poetic and philosophical man, who while whimsical, undoubtedly is more favoured by both the foetus and the reader. Their motivating factor is to sell the multi-million house of John, thus Claude and Trudy plan to poison a smoothie and construct the scene in order to frame it as a suicide. Yet, all does not go according to plan as the police begin to find loopholes in their intricately plotted murder.
This innovative narrative voice in Nutshell presents the unborn child as wiser and more emotionally developed than his adult companions. Supposedly reflecting the character of Hamlet, the narrator memorably questions whether he wants to be born into such a world ravished with murder, adultery and war, presenting a thought-provoking angle for the reader. Throughout the novel the intelligence and emotional capacity of the child is undoubtable, as in one striking moment he even attempts his own suicide. In this setting of a messy separation the child remains completely disregarded and uncared for, hence arguably McEwan is making a statement concerning the rising frequency of divorce and the effects on children within the 21st century. However, the narrator ultimately has the power to control the situation, as his decision of when to be born is crucial. Therefore, perhaps McEwan suggests that the power and intelligence of children should not be overlooked.
Throughout his literature, McEwan presents an overriding concern with the independence, or lack thereof, of children. For example, in Atonement Briony’s desperation for acknowledgment within her family has devastating consequences. Equally, in The Cement Garden McEwan explores the necessary independence of the children as they are left orphaned, and the consequent psychological impact of this. Similarly, a climatic point in McEwan’s literature concerning children is seen through The Children Act (2014) which centres around the question of whether a teenager has the right to decide his own medical treatment. Hence, Nutshell continues McEwan’s exploration of the role of parents and the agency of children. Therefore, Nutshell is undeniably consistent with McEwan’s continuous concern for the emotional and psychological well-being of children.
Ian McEwan continues to captivate the reader as tragicomedy meets thriller in Nutshell. The idle idiocy of Claude is comedically juxtaposed with the hippy-ish style of John. Yet equally the tragic plot-line of Nutshell is poignant while the elements of modern thriller tantalise the reader through the murderous story and the constant plot-twists. In a nutshell, McEwan’s novel brings the Shakespearean tragedy and suspense to the modern reader, while addressing the ever-current issue of the independence and rights of children.
– by Harriet Hansford