Right before my recent vacation I had about five hours of car commute for which I needed an audio book. I didn’t want one longer than five hours because I would have had to put off the end for almost three weeks. I used the filter on Audible to find a book of suitable length and stumbled across Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. I blow a little hot and cold on McEwan. Or I should say I find some of his work to be okay and I find some of his work to be absolutely brilliant. McEwan also alternates between what could be called normal kind of stories (Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Sweet Tooth, etc.) and those that can be a little freaky and macabre (The Cement Garden, Enduring Love, Amsterdam, etc.). If On Chesil Beach is my favorite “normal” McEwan (and one of my favorite books of all time), Nutshell is my favorite freaky McEwan (and probably my favorite book of the year).
Being less literate than many of you, I didn’t catch the allusion to Hamlet until I finished the book and read about it online. Even though I read Hamlet back in high school, I didn’t make the connection. In Nutshell we have an unnamed narrator, who just happens to be a fetus, overhearing his mother and her lover/his uncle plotting the death of his father. I thought this book was brilliant on so many levels. I love the way McEwan describes the physiological aspects of fetushood and how it apprehends information from both outside stimulus and internal processes. Although many of those processes are probably scientifically accurate, what it may convey to a fetus is purely fictional and pretty damn clever and funny. This is a fetus that vacillates between being very sophisticated and knowledgeable (and a bit of an expert on the terroir of fine wines) and not knowing much more basic concepts/ideas/emotions. He reminded me more than a bit of Stewie from the animated show Family Guy. Stewie is a baby with a posh British accent (despite his family being American) who knows how to build a time machine but is sometimes clueless about the very basics of life. (Seth McFarland recording this audio book as Stewie is something I would commission if I was Warren Buffet-rich.)
Aside from the brilliance of the setting and narrator, Nutshell stands on its own as a will-they-succeed, will-they-get-away-with-it kind of murder mystery. McEwan had me completely wrapped up in the tension and had me rooting for just about everyone, except for the d-bag uncle, at one point or the other. There were so many possible outcomes that could have been fascinating. To keep the spoilers at bay, I won’t go into some of the many endings I falsely predicted along the way.
McEwan also packs the short novel with so many brilliant observations, but they never get in the way of the story. They all feel right.
Although I listened to this audio book I can totally see myself reading the print version next time around. High marks. Favorite book of my year so far.