Nutshell: A Novel


Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

Reviewed by Megan O’Connor (and Lyra)

Hamlet, in a nutshell – with names like Trudy and Claude. Of course, we never learn the name of the baby-Cover of Nutshellto-be (or not).

It’s a fun premise – the world as viewed by a foetus who has gained insight and high culture from podcasts via his mom’s earbuds. And the writing is superb. In fact, many of the lines have the terse wit of a Shakespearean play – “My heart is struggling with my mother’s angry blood” — and a similar comparison can be made to the plot, which charges forward, like a sword cutting through air.

I’m not sure where it takes us, though. Culture comes to nothing. Remorse is carried out with the rubbish. It seems there is little point even to being clever. Does meaning simply lead to chaos? Is there any point, then, in the author’s incisive remarks about human nature? Yet … there’s a neat counterpoint to Hamlet in the ending: birth, rather than death (one hopes). John, one supposes, is the Christ figure – the wounded hands, the last supper. The foetus carries his blood, and truth will out. Symbolically, the novel admits hope – yet the mundane details of murder carry the weight. The devil is in the details (to use Claude-ian cliche).

Still, I’m intrigued – and that, plus the brilliance of the writing, makes it well worth the read.

Lyra was happy to note the canine content. The foetus muses on the “strange mood” that has “seized the almost-educated young” (a phrase that made me laugh, like so many others): the paradox of wanting grownups to validate their “chosen identities.” Surely the point is to sidestep authority – yet the young are too frail (snowflakes come to mind): “Should inconvenient opinions hover near me like fallen angels or evil djinn (a mile being too near), I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gambolling puppies. Ah, the intellectual life! I may need advance warning if upsetting books or ideas threaten my very being by coming too close, breathing on my face, my brain, like unwholesome dogs” (emphasis mine).

Dogs, according to Lyra, form the crux of the novel’s social commentary. The gap between gambolling puppies and unwholesome dogs is like the gap between make-believe and other people; between what we choose to allow into our worldview, and what breaks in. Trudy won’t close the gap; she wants to stick to her fairy tale. (And look what happens.) Love is one letter shy of murder; it even sounds like death (threnody / elody). Society needs clear-headed justice, because people can’t, on their own, keep their heads. People, like dogs, are motivated by desire and fear – which is pretty chaotic, socially, albeit governed by laws on an individual level. The opening of a wine bottle gets Pavlovian treatment here; it had better not be the only law of the land.

Is Nutshell an attack on liberal sensitivities? The decay of culture? Or simply a reminder that sins of the fathers … (etc.)? I don’t think so. The narrator chooses life. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, if he’s more in love with wine or language, but the careful choice of words (unlike Claude’s parrot-speak) is as inexorable as childbirth in this novel – and offers, not a safe space, but a coping mechanism that is not quite the same thing as sated desire.

Lyra’s take: She’s not sure that dogs really do come off well in this novel – in their slim, analogous role. They’re like humans, only without the poetry. However, she gives it three paws on the grounds that Nutshell at least recognizes the impact of maternal diet and stress, as well as sound, on the foetus, which all breeders should consider.

Takeaway for dogs? Stay away from antifreeze. Seriously. It will kill you.