My rating: 3 of 5 stars
“Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.”
So the bad dreams begin for quite possibly the youngest protagonist in the history of stories as we follow a fetus who swirls inside his mother’s womb and contemplates the demise of his family and the world in what tends to stretch the reader’s imagination at times but at other times fits perfectly with Ian’s usual style of emphatic poetics and enlarged lexicon to draw the reader into the language which compels the story, and the reader’s interest, ever forward as the fetus, thus far unnamed, or so named “baby,” contemplates the beginning to his very own awareness:
“Let me summon it, that moment of creation that arrived with my first concept. Long ago, many weeks ago, my neural groove closed upon itself to become my spine and my many million young neurons, busy as silkworms, spun and wove from their trailing axons the gorgeous golden fabric of my first idea, a notion so simple it partly eludes me now. Was it me? Too self-loving. Was it now? Overly dramatic. Then something antecedent to both, containing both, a single word mediated by a mental sigh or swoon of acceptance, of pure being, something like—this? Too precious. So, getting closer, my ideas was To be. Or if not that, its grammatical variant, is. This was my aboriginal notion and here’s the crux—is. Just that. In the spirit of Es muss sien. The beginning of conscious life was the end of illusion, the illusion of non-being, and the eruption of the real. The triumph of realism over magic, of is over seems” (pgs 2-3).
The “is” begins and the fetus narrates his musings on his beloved wine, which his pregnant-mother Trudy drinks lots of (p 7, 52), and on oral sex (p 116) and other sexual positions (p 127) with her husband’s brother, Claude, coming only inches away from the unborn baby’s head.
Despite the sex scenes, which are cleverly and neatly written to allow more to the reader’s imagination—and to the imagination of the fetus, which the reader must remember is “guessing” at what might or might not be happening outside the range of his senses beyond his mother’s belly, but the narrator can hear, apparently very well.
In one scene the fetus, our beloved Prince, hears his doomed father, John, giving a toast (which seems to come from the writer’s own heart) before Elodie (John’s new girlfriend), Trudy (the estranged wife), and John’s brother (now Trudy’s lover) Claude, and in John’s speech he talks of how a very act of love can bring one into “existence,” the great “is” of life, which seems to be an underlying theme one could consider as central to the plot of taking away life rather than giving it:
“Almost ten years ago, on the Dalmatian coast, in a cheap hotel without sight of the Adriatic, in a room an eighth the size of this, in a bed barely three feet across, Trudy and I tumbled into love, into ecstasy and trust, joy and peace without horizon, without time, beyond words. We turned our backs on the world to invent and build our own. We thrilled each other with pretended violence, and we cosseted and babied each other too, gave each other nicknames, had a private language. We were beyond embarrassment. We gave and received and permitted everything. We were heroic. We believed we stood on a summit no one else, not in life, not in all poetry, had ever climbed. Our love was so fine and grand it seemed to us a universal principle. It was a system of ethics, a means of relating to others that was so fundamental that the world had overlooked it somehow. When we lay on the narrow bed face to face, looked deep into each other’s eyes and talked, we brought ourselves into being” (pgs 68-69).
British Novelist Ian McEwan
Here Ian is at his best when he writes from the heart and experience rather than his intellect and it makes him such a pleasure to read.
The story, however, does dive deeper, albeit briefly and intensely at times, into philosophical questions (a trait of Ian’s) related to the far reaching grasp of humanity’s corrosive effects on and in the world (that the infant will inherit once he is born) and on the individual’s personal identity (which the infant must consider after birth as well), found in the following examples:
“Africa yet to learn democracy’s party trick—the peaceful transfer of power. Its children dying, thousands by the week, for want of easy things—clean water, mosquito nets, cheap drugs. Uniting and levelling all humanity, the dull old facts of altered climate, vanishing forests, creatures and polar ice. Profitable and poisonous agriculture obliterating biological beauty. Oceans turning to weak acid” (pgs 26- 27).
And later on identity (p 146) and the millennial-desire to be spoiled or to be treated with a certain unearned respect (and for some reason I hear Ian’s sardonic laughter in the background mocking this “desire and obsession on identity” too often found in immigrant literature in the Occidental literary class):
“My identity will be my precious, my only true possession, my access to the only truth. The world must love, nourish and protect it as I do. If my college does not bless me, validate me and give me what I clearly need, I’ll press my face into the vice chancellor’s lapels and weep. Then demand his resignation.
“The womb, or this womb, isn’t such a bad place, a little like the grave, ‘fine and private’ in one of my father’s favorite poems. I’ll make a version of a womb for my student days, set aside the Enlightenments of Rosbifs, Jocks and Frogs. Away with the real, with the dull facts and hated pretence of objectivity. Feeling is queen. Unless she identifies as king.”
The plot, however, is what keeps the reader engaged, following the plot of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet:
A murder of the father, the king, John Cairncross, a failed poet/publisher who has been dismissed from his familial home (which is to be sold for seven million pounds after the killing) by Trudy, the Queen, also called “Mouse” (p 122) by another father figure, the Uncle, who is Claude, a wealthy property developer. And what of the unborn child, the Prince? He seeks revenge (p 135, “Revenge unstitches a civilisation”).
As you can see, in addition to the plot, sneaky names and allusions from Shakespeare and Hamlet have slyly popped up throughout.
Regardless of the historical and literary references (which I’m sure took Ian a bit of time to hide within the text of his story), what brings me back to Ian’s work each year with each new book (see additional reviews on Atonement, and on Sweet Tooth, and on Amsterdam) is Ian’s ability to effortlessly merge his talent, his intellect, his experience, his language, his emotion into another being’s voice that slips off the page like liquid cheese from a hot knife:
“But lately, don’t ask why, I’ve no taste for comedy, no inclination to exercise, even if I had the space, no delight in fire or earth, in words that once revealed a golden world of majestical stars, the beauty of poetic apprehension, the infinite joy of reason. These admirable radio talks and bulletins, the excellent podcasts that moved me, seem at best hot air, at worst a vaporous stench. The brave polity I’m soon to join, the noble congregation of humanity, its customs, gods and angels, its fiery ideas and brilliant ferment, no longer thrill me. A weight bears down heavily on the canopy that wraps my little frame. There’s hardly enough of me to form one small animal, still less to express a man. My dispositions is to stillborn sterility, then to dust” (p 91).
Ian will not disappoint in Nutshell. He keeps the pages (all 199 of them) moving rapidly in a small book that can take a delightful afternoon or two to complete. He keeps the suspense high and he keeps the reader thinking and feeling deeply as the reader starts to question not only when does life begin but what kind of life are we leaving for future generations still waiting to be born.
Keep reading and smiling…