Book Review: Nutshell

I like Ian McEwan’s books. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s ever written, and I’ve never disliked anything that he wrote. I’m sure that some of my love comes from the fact that one of the main characters of Atonement is named Cecilia; I really love that there’s a strong literary character in a great work of fiction who shares my name. I also love the way in which McEwan looks at the major issues of life and morality in his books. He’s engaging, insightful, and thought-provoking. (I said much of this when I reviewed The Children Act in January of last year.)

I bought McEwan’s latest book, Nutshell, about a week after it came out. I’d been wanting to read the book from the moment that I heard that McEwan, one of my favorite authors, was writing a modernization of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which Hamlet is an unborn baby whose mother is having an affair with his father’s brother. Oh, and Hamlet is the narrator of the story.

Well, color me intrigued. I bought the book. I was immediately captured by McEwan’s narrative style and the characters he brought to life on the page. I read it every time I had two seconds to rub together. The book deepened my love of McEwan. He is intelligent, and he has to know that. But he never seems to rub it in your face. His modernization of Hamlet isn’t absurdly highbrow or elitist.

Rather, it deals with the mundanities of real life adultery. How does one comfortably have sex with one’s brother’s pregnant wife? How does a woman handle being pregnant with one brother’s child but involved with the other brother? What is it like to be the unborn child in the middle of all of this?

It is the characterization and development of the unborn baby that most intriguing. McEwan creates a child who is weeks from birth, who understands what is happening around him. The baby is sentient. He cannot yet see color, but he knows what it is. He has opinions on what his mother eats, drinks, and hears. He has opinions on politics and philosophy. The idea of writing a novel from the perspective an unborn child is complex and difficult. Many writers could have tried it and come off as pretentious or trying too hard. McEwan makes it work. The child is a well-developed character and a believable (if not entirely reliable) narrator.

The book is a smooth read. It does, as all McEwan novels do, present challenging ideas. It is a worthwhile read. I enjoyed it, and I can’t wait until I have another new McEwan novel to read.


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