Nutshell is a novel narrated by a foetus, who tells the story of his mother and uncle’s plan to murder his father. Throughout the book we hear the terrible plotting conversations from the adults in the outside world, as the foetus does, and are also allowed into all the foetus’ thoughts and musings. The novel is based on the story of Hamlet, but with the twist of this unique and fascinating viewpoint; inspiration certainly seems to be taken from the traditional line, ‘I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space’. This novel is relatively short, but is witty, interesting, and thoroughly engaging.
As an adaptation of Hamlet I found this novel highly entertaining. Nutshell’s Elsinore is a grand, decaying, Georgian townhouse in London. Trudy (based on Gertrude), the foetus’ mother, is no longer in love with her husband, John, and has persuaded him to move out of his family home. There, she lives with her brother-in-law and lover Claude (based on Claudius), as they plan to murder John and make a fortune from the house. The familiar story gave the novel a strong forward momentum, and little allusions to the traditional story were extremely satisfying.
I loved the unique point of view we got from the narrator of the story; it was unlike anything I have ever read before. A witness who experiences the events of the novel without their sense of sight, and furthermore is unable to say or do anything about them, was fascinating to read about. Furthermore, there were enough physical descriptions and hints of science to effectively establish the small parameters of the uterus the narrator lived in, which was both interesting and often humorous.
The novel is in one sense a thriller; details of the planning and the act of the murder, and the fate of Trudy and Claude not being revealed until the final few pages made the plot tense, and the book a page-turner. It is also rich in many other ways, however, as is typical of Ian McEwan’s writing. The foetus is extremely intelligent due to this mother’s podcasts and radio 4 habits; literature, history, world affairs and even an extensive knowledge of wines are often detailed.
The plot, characters and themes are organised so thoroughly and expertly in this novel, nothing less than what I expected from Ian McEwan. It was an entertaining, intelligent, fast read, and even if you are not familiar with the story of Hamlet, I would still recommend this novel.