I have a love/hate relationship with British author Ian McEwan. When he's good, he's very, very good, ("The Children Act") but when he's bad....well, "Nutshell" is an example of a book that infuriated me. I must tell you that I disagree with all of my favorite reviewers on this, (Ron Charles of the Washington Post and Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times), so don't necessarily take my word for it. Read it yourself and then we can talk.
Admittedly, the premise is clever. The narrator is an almost full-term fetus nestling now uncomfortably claustrophobic in the womb of Trudy, a woman who has dumped the father of her child in favor of his brother Claude, an insipid, boring man whose only good attribute seems to be his penis. The names Trudy and Claude should kick off alarm bells in the reader's head. Yes, this novel is a strange tribute to the bard's "Hamlet." The fact is that Philip Roth used a similar trope in his 2000 novel "Gertrude and Claudius."
Our fetus is deeply concerned with his own future welfare as he witnesses, from his insider position, the plot to murder his father, John, by inelegantly painful means. John is a poet, passionate and worldly, and the fetus is flummoxed by the attraction his mother has for John's brother Claude. She and Claude copulate frequently but they don't seem to like each other much and they certainly don't trust each other.
And so the fetus spends his time ruminating upon the state of the world he's about to be born into and here is where I take issue with this novel. If McEwan needs to spout his concerns about society's failures, and he has many, why not just do it in essay form? As a murder mystery, the novel works, but as a treatise on the unhealthy state of the world, from war in the middle east, to climate change, to the decline of the United States and the rise of China, it just seems like misplaced rhetoric.
Will you keep reading? Yes! We have to know whether Trudy and Claude will get away with their dastardly deed and we have to know whether the brilliant fetus will be safely delivered of his amniotic sack or whether, in frustration, he'll strangle himself with his own umbilical cord.