Ian McEwan represents all the good things I love about literary fiction. Precise and effective prose, interesting characters, plots that will not let go, and a wonderful resource for building a vocabulary. His latest novel, Nutshell, has an even more unusual character/narrator than I have come to expect. At first, I believed this was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The characters, Trudy and Claude, plot the murder of John, Claude’s brother and Trudy’s husband. But McEwan has led us down that path with a sudden 180 degree twist.
The narrator is the fetus of Trudy and John. Now, this is not unique. Lawrence Sterne in his 18th century novel, Tristram Shandy, relates the life of the title character from the womb. Take that idea and mix in an articulate narrator, and McEwan has given us a thoroughly modern twist on Sterne.
Trudy is at dinner with Claude, and she refuses a third glass of wine. McEwan writes, “But, no, she restrains herself for love of me. And I love her – how could I not? The mother I have yet to meet, whom I know only from the inside. Not enough! I long for her external self. Surfaces are everything. I know her hair is ‘straw fair,’ that it tumbles in ‘coins of wild curls’ to her ‘shoulders the white of apple flesh,’ because my father has read aloud to her his poem about it in my presence. Claude too has referred to her hair, in less inventive terms. When she’s in the mood, she’ll make tight braids to wind around her head, in the style, my father says of Yulia Tymoshenko. I also know that my mother’s eyes are green, that her nose is a ‘pearly button,’ that she wishes she had more of one, that separately both men adore it as it is and have tried to reassure her. She’s been told many times that she’s beautiful, but she remains skeptical, which confers on her an innocent power over men, so my father told her one afternoon in the library. She replied that if this were true, it was a power she’d never looked for and didn’t want. This was an unusual conversation for them, and I listened intently” (7-8). Curiously enough, I found myself listening intently to the conversations between John and Trudy and Claude and Trudy, as if I were an eavesdropping intruder, to piece together how the novel might turn out.
Trudy listens to pod casts to pass the time, and in one passage – too long for a complete sample – the lecturer discusses the state of the world – “in existential crises” – “new forms of brilliant weaponry” – “global corporations to dodge taxes” – ‘China, too big to need friends or counsel” – “Muslim-majority countries plagued by religious puritanism” – “The Middle East, fast breeder for a possible world war” (24-25). And lastly, “the United States, barely the hope of the world, guilty of torture, helpless before its sacred text conceived in an age of powdered wigs, a constitution as unchallengeable as the Koran. Its nervous population obese, fearful, tormented by an inarticulate anger, contemptuous of governance, murdering sleep with every new handgun” (25).
This is the power of fiction. Holding up the reader to his or her country for debate – hopefully before it is too late. The Nutshell by Ian McEwan shows us one of those writers I voraciously pursue to get every drop of the message, every turn of phrase, and every new word. 5 stars