Nutshell – 4/5 Stars
“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”
Ian McEwan has been writing and publishing near on 50 years. His fiction can be a little hit or miss, with some of his more famous works like the Booker Prize winning Amsterdam often seen as his weakest. For me this is simply not true because he recently published an embarrassing parody of Kafka about the Boris Johnson administration called The Cockroach.
This is also one of his more recent books, and aside from the fact that I am sucker for a retelling of a Shakespeare play, I think is very good. There’s been a slew of Shakespeare retellings peaking recently with the Hogarth Shakespeare series that commissioned works and resulted in some very good books like Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, and some not good books like Anne Tyler’s The Vinegar Girl.
This book is not connected to that one. The book takes its title from the line of Hamlet in which Hamlet is talking to Rosencrantz about how small a life he’d be happy to live if his own brain would let. In this novel, which is a play on Hamlet, we begin with a fetus ensconced in the womb of Trudy, who is married to John, but as the marriage is failing, has been sleeping with his brother Claude. You see where this is going of course. Our narrator is that fetus, with a brain the equal of Hamlet himself, and raised (in his very short time) by the sounds of the podcasts that Trudy plays. The novel though is not a retelling of Hamlet, because while the setup is the same, this novel takes place almost entirely while John is still alive. John will die, I hate to tell you, but you should know that. Equally as immobile as Hamlet himself, our narrator listens in as the two lovers move themselves closer and closer to the murder. Unlike in the play, where it’s ambiguous (though unlikely) that Gertrude knew of the murder plot, here Trudy is not only in on it, but thought it up herself. Here’s another way in which the novel differs from Hamlet and veers closer to Macbeth in plot and sensibility with Trudy pushing John (who’s perfectly willing to commit the crime, but not put his neck out) and in the subsequent police investigation where Trudy wants not to be found but can’t pretend that she and John have become an item.
What stands out in this book primarily is that while the plot is familiar, though framed in a new way, this is a novel of voice. The narrator’s voice is so well-rendered and conceived (ha!) and his ruminations are more interesting and more fun and intelligent than any amount of plot could deal with. If this sounds familiar, well, the plot of Hamlet is both near cliched, and weird and stupid at times (he’s kidnapped by pirates don’t forget), but his voice and his mind is always on display, and not always focused on the work at hand. I ended up rereading Hamlet and Macbeth for this novel in part because I read a James Shapiro book recently, a Margaret Atwood nonfiction collection that talks about Shakespeare a lot, and the Jasper Fforde book. I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up reading a few more “Based on Shakespeare” books soon enough.
Hamlet – 5/5 Stars
As mentioned above, the novel borrows heavily from Hamlet, and this is one of many many Hamlet retellings. I have read John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, which also retells the story basing elements of it off of both historical record and on previous versions of the Hamlet story, written both contemporaneously to Shakespeare and well before (Amleth being an earlier version). Another version that I really liked is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, which places Hamlet on a Kentucky dog farm in the mid-20th century. The Ophelia, Laertes, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern characters are recast of special hunting dogs. It’s a very sweet and sad novel.
“O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.”
Macbeth – 5/5 Stars
“When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
There’s several clues in the Ian McEwan novel that place the influence as much on Macbeth as on Hamlet. For one, the plot more resembles the ambition (or fate?) driven murder plot instead of revenge, as does the fallout. Second, there’s several specific references to Macbeth, including a reference to sticking courage to the sticking place, and references to Wyrd Sisters. Also, the police inspector works like MacDuff in her pursuit of justice. I also have to believe that Ian McEwan, being Scottish, maybe just couldn’t help himself a little.
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail.”