Although Ian McEwan has tackled a vast range of subject matters in his literary fiction, many of his books fall into specific categories or share distinct themes. There are the early macabre works like ‘The Cement Garden’, the espionage stories such as ‘The Innocent’ or Sweet Tooth, the state-of-the-nation novels like ‘Saturday’ or The Children Act and then there are the books like ‘Nutshell’ which somehow fall into all of these categories. Nutshell’ is a unique interpretation of William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ from the point of view of an unnamed foetus who overhears a murder plot hatched by his mother Trudy and her lover Claude to kill John, who is Trudy’s husband and Claude’s brother, and cash in on the value of their marital home.
Those who are familiar with ‘Hamlet’ will spot countless allusions to the play, the most obvious of which include the names of the characters, soliloquies on current affairs and the foetus’s obsession with his mother’s infidelity with his loathsome uncle (ultimately responsible for a well-deserved honorary mention for this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction award). Numerous quotes and wordplay from the original text are included in the prose – some more subtly than others – and although the most famous quote of all isn’t explicitly mentioned, the foetus spends a considerable amount of time dwelling on the nature of “being”.
Ultimately, I would say it is essential to be familiar with at least the basic characters and plot of ‘Hamlet’ in order to appreciate ‘Nutshell’ as this is what makes the unique perspective of the foetus so worthwhile. He is a highly entertaining narrator: mischievous, philosophical, snobby and adolescent in equal measure just a couple of weeks away from his due date. His vast knowledge of the world he has yet to see and experience from the outside is mostly derived from the Radio 4 podcasts Trudy listens to and he has become quite the wine connoisseur thanks to his mother’s drinking habits even in the late stages of pregnancy. The characters of Trudy and Claude also share the same psychological flaws and layers as their Shakespearean counterparts and the final chapters in which they find out whether or not they have got away with John’s murder are as tense and well-paced as any good thriller.
It could be said that McEwan is simply ripping off one of the best-known plays of all time with a new gimmick, but he has done it with style. His elegant prose with copious amounts of black humour and ironic turns of phrase is at its best in ‘Nutshell’ and the overall effect is much more satisfying than the satire of his 2010 novel ‘Solar’. He seems to have had great fun writing ‘Nutshell’ and it is great fun to read.