The unseen observer, is he bound to speak? McEwan’s In a Nutshell review

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It’s been quite the winter, and here in Nevada we are only half way through the season. We can see snowfall as late as March. As I write it’s raining and snowing. This has been a record wet year, and again, we are only half way through the season!

We’ve had 12.63 inches (or roughly 32.09 centimeters) of rain since the start of the year. Our average yearly total is 9.23. As you might of guessed by now, we now have more water than the ground can hold. Great news if you are duck, but for us home dwellers this is becoming a nightmare. My lawn is now a pond and the water is starting to seep onto my patio. Good thing I held onto the sandbags I got a few weeks back. I am also learning how to sleep to the noise of a sump pump.

But enough about the weather. It’s been a while since I posted, but you will have to excuse me. Between snow shoveling and ark building I’ve been preoccupied. Ever Googled a cubit? Ever gone into a hardware store asking if they sell boards by the cubit? I don’t suggest you do, the look you get is not worth the giggle. I thought everyone but Americans built things using the metric system; leave it to God to make up his own system of measurement. Sigh.. All kidding aside, the one good thing about winter weather is that it makes for a great reading companion. And I have done a lot of reading these last few weeks. In fact, I have read a genre I haven’t had much enthusiasm for lately. I’ve started reading fiction again.

It started with some mentions on Twitter. A few readers whose opinions I highly respect mentioned reading McEwan’s In a Nutshell, based on Hamlet and liking it. Soon, the New Yorker and other magazines praised it as a tour de force and possibly McEwan’s best writing yet. The Washington post said, “It’s more brilliant than it has the right to be”. And this, my dear friends, is the best line of a review for the book you’ll read. It really does say it all. I cannot express myself enough about how much utter joy it gave me. It is modern fiction at its finest. If only other writers had half McEwan’s talent.

Now, stay with me, as the plot will seem beyond absurd. From the author’s webpage:

Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She’s still in the marital home — a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse — but John’s not here. Instead, she’s with his brother, the profoundly banal Claude, and the two of them have a plan. But there is a witness to their plot: the inquisitive, nine-month-old resident of Trudy’s womb.

The story is told through the eyes of Trudy’s unborn son. He is the unseen observer of both Trudy’s betrayal and involvement to kill her husband, but more importantly, he observes and comments on modern life and this is where the fun begins. His observations are both comical and biting, This is the baby thinking about college life:

A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young. They’re on the march, angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities. The decline of the West in new guise perhaps. Or the exaltation and liberation of the self.

Should inconvenient opinions hover near me like fallen angels or evil djinn (a mile being too near), I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gambolling puppies. Ah, the intellectual life!

And like all good tragedies, he also makes us cry as we watch his helplessness as he is trapped in a situation that offers no control.

Unless, unless, unless–a wisp of a word, ghostly token of altered fate, bleating little iamb of hope, it drifts across my thoughts like a floater in the vitreous humour of an eye. Mere hope.

For those of us who are parents, this book will make you wonder if your prebirth actions were observed and noted. You may ask yourself if somehow, without forethought or intent, your actions affected your child’s worldview, as if he/she fed off  your words and the words of your outside contacts just as he fed off the food you ate. For those who bought into the idea that playing Mozart to an unborn child would make him/her a genius you have to ask yourself, what effect your daily activities had on the child? And even if you didn’t buy into this, you may find yourself wondering if your child formed his first opinions based on his prebirth observations. It’s both a scary and hilarious prospect. Especially with observations like this one:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose.

Much like Shakespeare this book is contains layers. The most obvious is McEwan’s use of an unseen observer in order to write about modern thought and society. The other is a tad bit more nuanced; the hard choices we make and the ripple effects that sometimes nudge but often wash over those around us.The baby’s mother is tragic in the sense that she seems to be bereft of any sense of true dignity and self-awareness, much like Hamlet’s mother who enters into a pact with Claudius out of lust and possibly self-preservation but without thinking about the consequences of those around her. In fact I would say we don’t feel for McEwan’s expectant mother like we do Gertrude because as a modern women there are more choices available to her. And unlike Gertrude she is no innocent pawn of Claudius’ plot.

There are nods to Hamlet, naturally, but you don’t have to be a Shakespeare fan to enjoy this book. It stands alone as a great piece of modern literature. But like Hamlet, be prepared for a tragic ending; this is no modern fairytale.

Works Cited

McEwan, Ian In a Nutshell Random House September 2016. Print Edition

Washington Post, Ian McEwan’s In a Nutshell a tale of betrayal and murder as told by a fetus. September 12, 2016. Online

For giggles I have to admit I heard the baby in the voice of the E-Trade baby. This was a series of commercials that stared a talking baby. For my UK readers and those who do not remember I offer these clip. After finishing the book you may need a good laugh, so I urge you to go back again re-watch them

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

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