Ian McEwan: Nutshell

by Jennifer Bryce

The central idea for this short novel is from Hamlet: ‘Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.’ The story is narrated (soliloquized) by a foetus Hamlet, whose mother is Trudy (as in Gertrude) and her lover is Claude (as in Claudius). The foetus  eavesdrops on the plot of the lovers to do away with the father (a poet), so that the two can be together without his intrusion.  It’s a clever idea. I’m sure that McEwan did his usual painstaking research so that the cramped environment from which the foetus narrates the story is accurate. Although, how a foetus could have any brain cells left after the huge amount of alcohol (including spirits) consumed by his mother, I don’t know. The whole thing is referenced, perhaps too nicely, to the play – the foetus makes the decision of whether ‘to be or not to be’, and ultimately decides it is best ‘to be’ and chooses to be born 2 weeks early thus intentionally , it seems, stuffing up the escape plans of the guilty murderers. It’s clever – but I found the whole thing a bit too much of a conceit. The father is a poet – giving McEwan opportunities to say things – through the foetus – about particular poets. The foetus is extraordinarily well informed about world events from hearing the podcasts that Trudy listens to – thus giving McEwan opportunity to make comment. Can you have Hamlet without a ghost? In this case, the ghost really does seem clumsy as the rest of the story is cast in 21st Century reality (the father succumbs to poisoning on the side of a freeway). The murderers are planning their escape when there are heavy footsteps on the stairs. How does the foetus know that his father’s face is bloodless and his lips greenish black? The ghost almost throttles Claude, embraces Trudy then returns up the stairs ‘and begins to fade’. The police are onto the murderers who overlooked DNA testing of a hat, significant to the crime. Baby Hamlet’s decision to be born disrupts the escape. He anticipates that he and his mother will go to prison and he looks forward to a world of sorrow, justice, then meaning. The rest is chaos – and with that, the book ends.