2016 marked the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and it was a bumper year for Bard-themed celebrations and tributes. A rather timely release, then, was Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, which sees the story of Hamlet co-opted not as a tribute to the playwright, but as a device for him to weave a classic tale of murder and deceit.
The novel’s unlikely narrator is an unborn child, a Hamlet in utero who relates his pre-natal predicament in the opening line: “So here I am, upside down in a woman.” His mother, (Ger)Trudy, is busy plotting the death of his father, the struggling poet John, and her accomplice is none other than the poet’s own brother, the profoundly banal property developer Claude(ius).
Nutshell sees the story of Hamlet co-opted as a device for McEwan to weave a classic tale of murder and deceit
Elsinore Castle is recast as a grand Georgian house in St. John’s Wood, and reframed as the motive for the murder. And, while not applied to the ear, there’s poison present in the form of an antifreeze-laced smoothie concocted by the perpetrators and given to the victim to drink.
While the narrative perspective may be unfamiliar, McEwan fans will recognise the setting as an old favourite of the author: an expensive, North-London household, home to the wealthy, metropolitan middle-class. However, the house is tellingly characterised more by its state of dilapidation than anything else, and while the characters aren’t unsuccessful, they’re hardly of the same social ilk as some of McEwan’s previous protagonists, such as Solar’s Nobel Prize-winning physicist or The Children Act’s High Court Judge.
Elsinore Castle is recast as a grand Georgian house in St. John’s Wood, and reframed as the motive for the murder
Despite its billing, the novel resonates with instances of genuine humour; overheard expressing her desire for space, the narrator responds to his mother incredulously: “Space! She should come in here, where lately I can barely crook a finger.”
Beyond the comedy, McEwan delights with lyrical prose that is fittingly poetic, an homage to both the novel’s own unfortunate poet and the poet of the novel’s source material: “In heavy rains the drains, like dependable banks, return their deposit with interest.”
The text is plagued with doubts surrounding its narrative verisimilitude, not least in the sheer implausibility of its foetal narrator
And yet, for all its poetic exuberance, the novel leaves the reader with the sense of having missed the mark. This perhaps has something to do with its lofty ambition; retellings of Shakespeare do often push the limits of their own conceptualisations. The text is plagued with doubts surrounding its narrative verisimilitude, not least in the sheer implausibility of its foetal narrator.
And while it’s clear from the extensive detailing that McEwan has done his homework, the plot itself is actually rather thin, which is characteristic of his output since the turn of the millennium.
McEwan is a stylish writer, but in this instance the style overshadows, rather than illuminates, the substance of his story
Early on in the text, the narrator undertakes a fictional ‘journey’ beyond the womb to imagine a conversation between his father and uncle. “Purely an exercise of the imagination”, the reader is reminded, “nothing here is real.” The act that the narrator completes in this instance is the task of the author; to go beyond one’s own reality and conjure up a story.
Nutshell is a virtuoso performance, probably McEwan’s best writing in years. But this is undoubtedly McEwan’s writing, and for all his noise-making about the book’s unique perspective it is the authorial voice which comes through the strongest. McEwan is a stylish writer, but in this instance the style overshadows, rather than illuminates, the substance of his story.
“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet, II.ii