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Gripping literary thriller with a narrator like no other

I’ve been lukewarm on some of Ian McEwan’s recent books but his latest, Nutshell, a literary thriller dealing with betrayal, death and guilt, was intriguing. The brilliantly conceived narrator is a foetus. From the vantage point of his mother, Trudy’s, womb, we become ‘witnesses’ to a plot by Trudy and her lover, Claude, to kill the foetus’ father John. Claude also happens to be John’s brother and we’re all set for a gripping Hamlet-esque drama.

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In fact, the whole book has a strong theatre stage feel to it, with the entire story taking place inside a decrepit, rubbished filled Georgian St John’s Wood house; a house that, in spite of its sorry state, is at the heart of the plot because of its £8 million value.

Some floor tiles have gone, others are cracked – Georgian, in a once colourful diamond pattern, impossible to replace. Concealing those absences and cracks, plastic bags of empty bottles and rotting food. Spilling underfoot, these are the very emblems of household squalor: the detritus of ashtrays, paper plates with loathsome wounds of ketchup, teetering teabags like tiny sacks of grain that mice or elves might hoard.

From the very first pages, Nutshell has an intensely haunted, ominous atmosphere. Our narrator worries about the reality he’ll meet after birth (not after death, as the real Hamlet) – who will love me? – and the state of the world he’ll be born into where adults are ‘teaching toddlers to slit the throat of Teddy bears’. It’s pretty apocalyptic stuff – understandably McEwan is deeply concerned about the state of the world – but occasionally these digressions feel a bit out of place.

While Trudy gets deeper and deeper into her numerous Pinot Noir bottles, our nameless Hamlet has to endure Claude’s voracious sexual appetite, doubts about his parents love for him and whether or not he even wants to be born (to be or not to be?). He even contemplates ‘suicide’, strangling himself with the umbilical cord. His final deed as a foetus is an ingenious act of revenge.

A foetus as a narrator? You might wonder. Will that work? Somehow I think it does. It sort of feels like one of Shakespeare’s characters, hidden behind a curtain, an invisible witness to what goes on. It’s a leap of faith that you have to take to enjoy this book. I happily did.

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Nutshell by Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape, 199 pages.