Review: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

nutshellTitle: Nutshell
Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
UK Release Date: 1st September 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Contemporary
Pages: 199
Format: Hardback
Source: Borrowed from a friend

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Trudy has betrayed her husband, John. She’s still in the marital home – a dilapidated, priceless London townhouse – but not with John. 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.

Told from a perspective unlike any other, Nutshell is a classic tale of murder and deceit from one of the world’s master storytellers.

Although I primarily (basically always) review YA on this blog, sometimes I read a book that I have an incredibly large amount of thoughts on, even more so than normal, and feel like I want to share and articulate my opinions – Nutshell was definitely one of these books for me! It also fitted in nicely with the approximate rule I try to follow when posting reviews (I aim to review books that have been published in the past 12 months to make sure I can keep my reviews current), and it’s a Hamlet retelling, making it my first book for the Retellings Reading Challenge 2017, which makes me only more keen to share my thoughts.

I have studied Hamlet, which means that I probably got more out of the book than someone who hasn’t studied the text – it meant that I was in a strong position to pick up on the references to the original play text within the novel. Not only is the title a play on a line from Hamlet (“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” in Act 2 Scene 2), but there were also little references to other lines slipped in throughout which I found really fun to spot. It also meant that I was familiar with a lot of key ideas, such as the fact that Claudius/Claude is notorious for drinking and his rhetoric, so I recognised a lot of instances where McEwan had clearly drawn on the original play within his interpretation. However, he did make it his own as well – instead of having Claudius, the skilled orator, we had Claude, who was slightly ridiculous in his pomposity.

The concept was also highly interesting, and meant I was curious about the book even before I realised that it had anything to do with Hamlet. The tale is told from the perspective of a foetus, which was rather odd but simultaneously highly engaging. I did at some point find the foetus’ awareness of visuals a little too much to be realistic (it said the child was hypothesising, but at the same time it was too close to the truth for me) but then again it’s such an unusual concept that there is a certain degree of artistic license that comes with the story. The voice of the foetus was also something I found rather bemusing – it had a strange yet charming degree of sophistication and maturity, which again I thought was debatable in terms of realism, but ultimately McEwan made it work, and kept me engaged throughout.

The main criticism I would have for this book is the way in which Gertrude/Trudy is so complicit in the murder of Old Hamlet/John. In the original play, the usual interpretation is that Gertrude was unaware that Claudius killed her husband (although obviously she is morally compromised as she went on to marry her dead husband’s brother). However, in this text, Trudy helps to plan and put into action the murder plot. She is also a highly irresponsibly mother, at one stage drinking an entire bottle of wine on her own, and drinking copiously throughout the book – even though she’s pregnant! I wasn’t a huge fan of this interpretation of Gertrude, ad generally I found her lack of maternal care quite jarring.

On the whole, this book is definitely an interesting one that I would recommend, although I would say that you will probably get more out of it if you have read and studied Hamlet than if you haven’t. My main criticism would definitely be the interpretation of Gertrude/Trudy, which I really strong disliked, even though it was interesting to read.

3-5

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