HERE I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting and wondering who I’m in what I’m in for.”
The narrator of the story abruptly and charmingly introduces himself to the startled reader. The first page of the book is as startling and as inspired as any of McEwan’s book. It is an invitation, a brazen plot, to the reader to journey with author into an altered realm. The narrator of the story is a foetus, a conceited and wily unborn boy, and the beginning of his unconsciousness is marked by the ultimate nightmare-overhearing a plot to kill his father.
“I listen, make mental notes, and I ‘m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.”
One can’t help but love this unborn hero whose character integrates wit and will. He tells his dark tale with great intensity and style. Like a sentinel in his mother’s womb, he keenly observes the criminal lust of his mother and uncle to the end. He’s determined to foil the plot, and if not, to avenge it.
Nutshell is another little gem-an excellent novel that should be celebrated almost equally with Atonement, The Children Act as one of Ian McEwan’s strongest works of fiction. The novel is a fascinating story of man’s villainy in-as-much as can be said of Shakespeare’s tragedies: Hamlet (the inspiration for this novel), Othello and Macbeth. The author’s light falls on three characters: the pregnant Trudy, her lover and brother-in-law Claude, and the unborn narrator of the story. The fourth , John, hovers on the margins, like Hamlet’s father.
While the narrator “floated dreamily in the bubble” of maternal confinement waiting to be born, his ears “pressed all day and night against the bloody walls” of his mother’s womb, the narrator overhears his mother’s and uncle’s deadly scheme to kill his father, John. Nothing fascinates a reader more than an alternative reality to the accounts of human nature. There are a few writers I have come across who have successfully pulled off such creative feats. Toni Morrison’s Beloved comes to mind, and so does Ben Okri’s The Famished Road. Shakespeare’s (the supreme dramatist of all time) Hamlet, transcends genius.
From the outset, the narrator’s hatred towards his uncle is undisguised: “Who is this Claude, this fraud who’s wormed in between my family and my hopes?……His existence denies my rightful claims to a happy life in the care of both parents. Unless I devise a plan. He has entranced my mother and banished my father. His interests can’t be mine. He’ll crush me. Unless, unless, unless…”
Claude has no qualms in not only stealing his brother’s wife but in permanently removing him as well.
The narrator’s ambivalence towards his mother is palpable: “I try to see her as she is, the gravidly ripe twenty-eight- year old, youngly slumpled across the table,….blonde and braided like a Saxon warrior, beautiful beyond realism’s reach,…..I try to see her and love her as I must, then imagine her burdens: the villain she’s taken for a lover, the saint she’ leaving behind, the deed she’s spoken for, the darling child she’ll abandon to strangers; Still lover her? If not, then you never did. But I did, I did. I do.”
But, Trudy, is no innocent victim. Her surrender to the wiles of Claude is calculated, and what binds them is not love but greed. Trudy is a deadly miscreant and the villain of the story, like the character, Zenia, in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. Like Zenia, she is a Jezebel, an Iago on stilettos-an abomination whose betrayal of her husband, her marriage and her son is unforgivable.
The narrator is devoted his father even though his disdain for him as a weakling complicit in his own annihilation is apparent. He describes his father as a psoriatic poet without recognition, his work outdated and stiffly formal, and remains moonishly in-love with his devious and cruel wife. He can’t understand why his father allows his wife to eject him out of his childhood home.
Nutshell is the highest form of literary pleasure with every scene skilfully choreographed and every sentence beautifully crafted. The novel is beguiling at the beginning, thrillingly dark in the middle, and very strong at the end. McEwan, a writer undoubtedly at the very top of his game, is no moralist and adroitly depicts the challenges of life in all their configurations.