By the time this came off the wait-list at the library, I had completely forgotten why my friend had recommended it to me, other than the obvious, which is that I love me some Ian McEwan.
And what’s interesting to report now that I’ve read Nutshell is that I may have grown out of my McEwan faze, because this checked a LOT of my boxes but ultimately didn’t blow me out of the water.
Which is not to say that this isn’t a beautiful book, it’s just a little bit removed from what stirs up my passions right now. I absolutely do give it five stars. As literary fiction, there are some passages that absolutely take one’s breath away. And as concept art, it’s very thoughtfully constructed, and complete. But my juices never flowed, and I didn’t really find myself caught up in the momentum, leaning in, wanting more, sooner, faster.
In a nutshell (sorry, I’ll see myself out in about two hundred more words), this is a first person narrative recreation of Hamlet, but Hamlet is a soon-to-be-born baby in utero, making him the least reliable narrator ever. All he knows is what he hears as he grows. He’s already well-educated but only because his mother, Trudy, has a conveniently serious podcast-listening habit. He eavesdrops on his mother’s plotting of his father’s murder with his uncle, her lover. And one of the most effective pieces of the puzzle that this creates is that when Hamlet rails against his utter inability to participate and affect any outcome in his life, it is absolutely true: he can accomplish nothing to make change in his world; he has no agency, and his frustration is entirely valid. The “to be or not to be” passage is absolutely worth the entire read.
There is also something wonderful that McEwan does to humanize the tiny baby narrator, which is the conjuring of time and place that Hamlet experiences whenever Trudy eats or drinks (and she drinks a LOT). He is tiny sommelier, and envisions fields and vineyards when she tastes his favorite vintages. When she enjoys a smoked salmon platter, he’s transported to Scandanavia, a standard McEwan moment of on-the-nose-and-yet-not-annoying-at-all which honestly isn’t annoying, I promise.
Pick it up. It’s fascinating and beautiful, if a little bloodless.