You may have heard about the Random House imprint Hogarth’s revisioning of Shakespeare plays by leading contemporary authors – we’ve had the likes of Jeanette Winterson redoing The Winter’s Tale (in The Gap of Time), Howard Jacobson having a go at The Merchant of Venice (in Shylock is my Name) and Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest (in Hag-seed); forthcoming titles include Jo Nesbo’s take on Macbeth, Tracy Chevalier’s take on Othello and Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame) taking on Hamlet in 2021. In 2021, I hear you wonder. That seems an awfully long time to wait for Hamlet! Perhaps Gillian Flynn writes slowly. Or perhaps the grand-dames of Random House have agreed to let there be a little bit of breathing space between Gillian Flynn’s book and this: Nutshell, the fifteenth novel by Ian McEwan. What? you interject. Has Ian McEwan had a go at a work of Shakespeare in the Hogarth Shakespeare series? No. No he hasn’t. But he has written a book that could form part of that series. If he (or they) had chosen to.
Let’s examine the evidence shall we? The novel opens with an epigram:
“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.”
I’ll let you guess which play that comes from. The story itself concerns a love triangle, of sorts. We have Trudy, a young woman with startling green eyes, who has betrayed her husband John, a poet and publisher of poets, with his brother, Claude, a property developer. Trudy asked John to leave the marital home (which was John’s inheritance and is now worth upward of eight million) to give them both “some space” – and moved Claude in. How do we know all of this? Why, via our narrator of course – the baby in Trudy’s belly. Ah, you mighy hazard at this point. Is Ian McEwan trying his hand at the kind of conceit you’d more quickly expect Martin Amis to have a go at? Why yes he is – but we have been here before haven’t we? McEwan picked up the Booker for his last murderous tryst in Amsterdam and maybe just maybe part of the attraction of this confection for him was to see if murder was the thing at elicited his greatest critical high? But never mind that for now. We were talking about Hamlet weren’t we?
Trudy and Claude decide to do poor John in, and their preferred route is poison. Our narrator ums and aahs quite a lot – and not in typical baby fashion either (our narrator is very, very erudite indeed thanks to all of the news and podcasts his mother listens to when she cannot sleep). Here is a little example (we’ll let you discover the Hamlet-isms for yourself):
“But lately, don’t ask me why, I’ve no taste for comedy, no inclination to exercise, even if I had the space, no delight in fire or earth, in words that once revealed a golden world of majestical stars, the beauty of poetic apprehension, the infinite joy of reason. These admirable radio talks, and bulletins, the excellent podcasts that moved me, seem at best hot air, at worst vaporous stench.”
We complained that McEwan’s last novel, The Children’s Act, had too small a purview – “Go and sit at a bus stop. Look at the world” we said – and even though Nutshell has the smallest purview imaginable, one that involves its narrator’s hands and arms being squashed tighter and tighter, the head locked into place for the final push, still his narrator is busy anticipating the world he is about to travel into, and his awareness is keen. Here he is absorbing a pessimistic podcast:
“Europe… in existential crisis, fractious and weak as varieties of self-loving nationalism sip that same tasty brew. Confusion about values, the bacillus of anti-Semitism incubating, immigrant populations languishing, angry and bored. Elsewhere, everywhere, novel inequalities of wealth, the super rich a master race apart. Ingenuity deployed by states for new forms of brilliant weaponry, by global corporations to dodge taxes, by righteous banks to stuff themselves with Christmas millions.”
Oh, you might say (you’re very interrupt-y today aren’t you?), this all sounds a little silly. A baby couldn’t possibly have the comprehension in order to relate even these small excerpts. To which we would say, it’s a conceit, sure, and one that you can choose to give yourself up to (or not). Our babe himself weighs in on the purview:
“Certain artists in print or paint flourish, like babies-to-be, in confined spaces. Their narrow subjects may confound or disappoint some. Courtship among the eighteenth-century gentry, life beneath the sail, talking rabbits, sculpted hares, fat people in oils, dog portraits, horse portraits, portraits of aristocrats, reclining nudes, Nativities by the million, and Crucifixions, Assumptions, bowls of fruit, flowers in vases.”
But what about the mystery itself? What about our budding Hamlet? Does he weigh in with an infantile Revenger’s Tragedy? He certainly considers it – “I have time to reflect on my fortunate lack of resolve” – before resolving that “Revenge unstitches a civilisation”. And the pace of the action outstrips our hero even as our hero comes to play a vital role in the climax (as you’d no doubt anticipate he would). The presence of an indomitable police inspector lends the novel an air of farce (but even as serious as it gets, and what after all is more serious than murder, you sense that McEwan has his tongue firmly in his cheek, that what we are reading is a comedy, its very existence undercutting any who would say, But a baby couldn’t do that!) but we are at end left with what felt to this reader like a good and clever novel, an elegant book, and McEwan’s best since Atonement (although we did like Solar and Sweet Tooth and On Chesil Beach too).
Any Cop?: In a nutshell (because what after all is the Any Cop? section of our reviews), this is McEwan at his most witty and playful, his most mordant and muse-y, and a very entertaining confection it is too.