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3 january 2017

I almost missed Ian McEwan's Nutshell because my local bookstore had shelved it under Mystery instead of general Fiction. Fortunately I do check Mystery quite a bit. Nutshell is far from a mystery, however. You see the conspirators plan a murder, so any doubt about the outcome is limited to whether they'll bring it off and whether they'll get caught. The mystery is in how the story gets told, because Nutshell must be the first novel in world literature where the narrator is a drunken fetus.

Is there a kind of anti-choice message here? One doubts it, because the telling of the story is so profane and irreverent, but if the unborn are people too, what better way of establishing the point than making one of them the narrator of a highly allusive literary novel?

Our unborn and thus nameless narrator (usually unceremoniously referred to by his mother as "it") understands the outside world with a high degree of selectivity which cannot entirely be ascribed to his fetal senses. McEwan is at pains to endow him with a good but not perfect sense of hearing, a delicate sensitivity to taste that makes him an excellent connoisseur of wines, and some rudimentary sense of touch. But he's sightless, and is forced to refract overheard accounts of the world through a vivid imagination in order to develop a picture of what's around him. He doesn't know what colors are, but he's heard about them often enough … you get the picture. For most purposes, given the extremely limited point of view, it is as reliable a narrator as you're likely to get in a postmodern novel.

The setting is contemporary London, but the plot is Hamlet fan-fiction. Our conspirators are Trudy and Claude, fixing to kill its father. Why is never entirely clear. "However close you get to others," our narrator reminds us, "you can never get inside them, even when you're inside them" (113). Trudy lusts after Claude, and her husband John (Claude's brother, naturally) leaves her with only memories of romance. John is an ineffectual poet, depressive, overly dramatic; Claude just wants to convert the family house into the millions it will bring in the overheated London real-estate market. Divorce isn't quick or complete enough, apparently, so the plan is to poison John … there's this stuff you can pour into his ear …

Trudy and Claude's world is one where you can order takeout Danish food – that's the fan-fiction aspect of it – but it's also a very current-eventy 2016, full of anxiety and wonder. McEwan is known for his twisty, Möbius-strippy plots, but also in recent years for highly topical fictions like Solar that tap into the Zeitgeist. You can read these bits diagonally if you like ‐ they're literally what a fetus might absorb from listening to the BBC – but it may be a good thing in years to come that a writer as gifted as McEwan took the care to transcribe them.

For a fetus, our narrator has a keen sense of irony and great empathy with the way of the world. He is an expert on poetic scansion and on police procedure. He tells a good story. You should listen to him.

McEwan, Ian. Nutshell. New York: Doubleday [Penguin Random House], 2016. PR 6063 .C4N84