Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Nutshell Ian McEwanAlthough 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.


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30 responses to “Nutshell by Ian McEwan

  1. I’ve recently been studying ‘Atonement’ by the same author and he presents in this many literary allusions, as you’ve mentioned, clearly he enjoys creating links between texts. Great post! I really want to try some more of McEwan’s work 🙂


  2. Margarita Morris

    Is Nutshell a full length novel or is it more novella length? The concept didn’t grab me at first, but I think I might have to give it a go after reading your review. I normally love Ian McEwan’s books but I found The Children Act a bit dull to be honest.


    • It’s a novella – 200 pages. I liked The Children Act but it is quite dry in comparison to Nutshell.


      • I think the children act would have been better if the perspective was from the boy , I’ve forgotten his name,not the judge.


      • They’re such different books. I admire McEwan’s ability to be so energetically different each time.
        I found The Children Act profound, in a non-dramatic way. It mentioned tragic cases that I’d read about and been outraged that these things should be allowed to happen (eg the Sally Clark case), making me wish that I had the skill to write about them and immortalise the injustice in people’s minds. (I have funny wishes sometimes.)
        Nutshell is a lot of fun, very skillful in its lightness of touch. I also wished when I was in the sixth form that I had the skill to rewrite Hamlet as a comedy.


      • Yes, they are very different books and I wonder what he will write next!


  3. Sounds interesting. I’m the last reader on the planet who hasn’t read Ian McEwan, though I’ve had Atonement sitting on the shelf for years. I do love Hamlet, though, so this could be the one…


  4. sylviemarieheroux

    I wasn’t sure I wanted to get this one but you make it sound like something I would enjoy. I started reading McEwan with Solar, and I have just started getting into older novels with On Chesil Beach. I think he is quite worth reading.


  5. I really want to read Nutshell I’m such an avid McEwan fan ,thanks for the post x


  6. Be ready now for a bitch-fest. While I did enjoy Nutshell and am familiar enough with Hamlet to have taken on board the literary allusions, quotes and characters – all the time I was reading it, I was also aware that this was NOT one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I have found so engrossing. So I wondered, was McEwan miffed not to have been included as one of the chosen authors and simply decided to”do it anyway”? No reason whyhe shouldn’t, of course.
    None of the above should stop anyone reading this book, though it is not the best Ian McEwan, it is engaging, funny, clever and SHORT.


    • I don’t know how long ago he came up with the idea or how the authors are selected for the Hogarth series. I’ve heard that Gillian Flynn is taking on Hamlet which should be interesting. I think Nutshell is definitely among McEwan’s best recent works.


  7. I’m not familiar with Hamlet but still enjoyed this book. Sure, I may have missed some particular references but I don’t think it detracted from what is a unique story and narrator. Rather than saying it was necessary to be familiar with Hamlet, I’d say the opposite, and that is don’t let the Hamlet parallels put people off from Nutshell, because there’s still much to be enjoyed!


  8. Thank you for reviewing this one! I thought the premise sounded odd and wasn’t sure whether or not to pick it up. However I love his prose and loved Atonement. I’ll put it onto my 2017 list.


  9. I’m listening to this at the moment on R4s book at bedtime and absolutely love it. I did hear one ‘to be’ reference near the beginning but can’t remember it now


  10. I liked this book a lot, too, but confess I enjoy just about anything by McEwan. He is, however, an acquired taste, and many very intelligent people I’ve recommended him to don’t care for him at all.


  11. I’m really looking forward to reading this one! Although I seem to have a lot of his novels to catch up on


  12. I find I either love or hate Ian McEwan’s novels. Atonement is one of my favourite books of all time but Sweet Tooth just didn’t work for me – I dismissed this one because of the quirkiness but now I’ve read your review I may reconsider!


  13. I have been wanting to read Nutshell for a while now, been seeing so much more on it lately in my book searches I will take that as a sign and get to it. Been reading The Boy and the Dolphin by Dick Schmidt as I needed to reaffirm to myself that there still can be good in the world. It worked, just the heartwarming story I needed!


  14. Pingback: Ian McEwan, Nutshell | Sylvie's World is a Library

  15. I’ve never heard of McEwan and feel like I’ve been missing out. This sounds like a really amazing book with a unique narrator. Can’t wait to pick up a copy myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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