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Nutshell
     

Nutshell

3.8 6
by Ian McEwan
 

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Ian McEwan is a literary superstar, and this is McEwan at his very best. Nutshell is the most amazing novel from the greatest of writers—gloriously entertaining, wonderfully imagined—a mesmerizing thriller to delight all readers.

"Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space—were it not that

Overview

Ian McEwan is a literary superstar, and this is McEwan at his very best. Nutshell is the most amazing novel from the greatest of writers—gloriously entertaining, wonderfully imagined—a mesmerizing thriller to delight all readers.

"Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams."
Shakespeare: Hamlet

Nutshell is an altogether original story of deceit and murder, told by a narrator with a perspective and voice unlike any in recent literature. Love and betrayal, life and death come together in the most unexpected, moving ways in this sensational new novel from Ian McEwan, which will make readers first gasp with astonishment then laugh with delight. Dazzling, funny and audacious, it is the finest recent work from a true master, beautifully told, brilliantly executed.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review

An incomplete list of unusual narrative points of view in fiction includes dog; wolf-dog; horse; dead girl; lizard; seagull; Death; monster; African elephant; cat; bowl; rabbit; mouse; guinea coin. To which we can now add fetus. Along with Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, thanks for thus enlarging the canon go to Ian McEwan, much-decorated author of sixteen previous works of fiction (Amsterdam, Atonement). But equal gratitude here is owed to Shakespeare, from whom McEwan has borrowed the plot in making literal Hamlet's lament, "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."

While the choice of an incipient person as narrator might seem to offer a severely limited perspective on human concerns, due to his having had none yet, this is no ordinary fetus. He uses words like "philatelist," "non-chordate," "penumbra." He proves himself an astute critic of poetry with a taste for scansion. He knows both his Latin and his wine (owing to a fifteen-part podcast on the subject listened to by his sleepless mother, not to mention the vintages she and he, by extension, ingest in quantity). He also ponders how to derail the murder plot he has been made to overhear. All in all, a canny egg.

With Nutshell McEwan has accomplished a small miracle: a well-wound thriller inside something bigger, a variegated meditation on folly, on the insistent untenability of this world to which we have given birth even as it gives birth to us, on the ability of art to encapsulate its mysteries. This, in a small package of fewer than two hundred pages. And especially in a small package, for his manifest intention is to create one of those exquisite miniatures that through a narrow scope view expansive territory. An exemplary post-postmodernist, McEwan chooses a form that also characterizes a subject who goes on to remark on the qualities of the form. A bit complicated, true, but that is also the point — and much of the pleasure — of his marvelous construction. "Certain artists in print or paint flourish, like babies-to-be, in confined spaces," McEwan's protagonist muses, going on to name the multitude of works that focus on a detail to imply an entirety: the eighteenth-century novel of manners, the portrait, the Dutch still life, the scientific study of a single organism or search for an atomic particle. "Why not, when all of literature, all of art, of human endeavor, is just a speck in the universe of possible things. And even this universe may be a speck in a multitude of actual and possible universes." This speck knows how to take on mind- bendingly large concepts. All of a sudden I am put in mind of a possession I wondered at endlessly as a child: a little bean, capped with a tiny ivory elephant, that contained twelve even tinier replicas. Impossible, yet there it was.

The deepest pleasures of Nutshell are likewise extra- narrative, pleasant as that is: a tasty recipe cooked up of an affair based on hilariously depicted, if queasy, sex. (At one point the put- upon fetus remarks that the "turbulence would shake the wings off a Boeing.") The perpetrator is moreover an idiot, "dull to the point of brilliance," but who has nonetheless "entranced my mother and banished my father."

The ego of any writer confident enough to link arms with the greatest poet of the English language is decidedly intact. At the very least, McEwan shows himself the true son of his literary forebear in a bent for wordplay. He deflates the hackneyed by simply making it issue from the mouth of a pre-babe: "I might live with my father, at least for a while," the narrator prognosticates — "Until I get on my feet." Late in the pregnancy, "my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged." A joke one minute, a stunning analysis of large truths the next; I can't imagine any shrewder account of how and why the demise of a marriage requires the whole-cloth remaking of personal history. Grander still are the pages that deftly collate all the ills afflicting the globe in the current moment: in a couple of disquisitions each no longer than this review, a child not yet born sums up the myriad causes and dismal prospects of a planet on the brink. There are concise op-eds on subjects from greed to self-deception, overconsumption to political malfeasance, art history to lust. The author who devises all this, and does it in prose so smoothly assured it goes down like a good Sancerre, "preferably from Chavignol," has pulled off one of the neatest tricks in recent literature.

If the diminutive narrator in these pages sounds suspiciously like someone who holds exactly the sort of vaunted CV as the author Ian McEwan, the fact is far less troubling than it is rewarding. Within the confines of Nutshell McEwan aspires to nothing less than compassing Shakespeare. So he works from dialectical plans: on the one hand, the most elevated of themes and execution, and on the other hand ("how I hate that phrase," rightly opines our young commentator) what amounts to cerebral slapstick.

When all that transpires in utero has had its run, the waters break, Nutshell at last makes a familiar adage uniquely true: the end is only the beginning.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, andThe Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.

Reviewer: Melissa Holbrook Pierson

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
…Ian McEwan has performed an incongruous magic trick, mashing up the premises of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Amy Heckerling's 1989 movie, Look Who's Talking, to create a smart, funny and utterly captivating novel…Nutshell is a small tour de force that showcases all of Mr. McEwan's narrative gifts of precision, authority and control, plus a new, Tom Stoppard-like delight in the sly gymnastics that words can be perform. The restrictions created by the narrator's situation…seem to have stimulated a surge of inventiveness on Mr. McEwan's part, as he mischievously concocts a monologue…that plays on Hamlet, even as it explores some of his own favorite themes (the corruption of innocence, the vulnerability of children and the sudden skid of ordinary life into horror), familiar to readers from such earlier works as The Child in Time, The Children Act and…Atonement…It's preposterous, of course, that a fetus should be thinking such earthshaking thoughts, but Mr. McEwan writes here with such assurance and élan that the reader never for a moment questions his sleight of hand.
The New York Times Book Review - Siddhartha Mukherjee
…compact, captivating…The writing is lean and muscular, often relentlessly gorgeous…The literary acrobatics required to bring such a narrator-in-the-womb to life would be reason enough to admire this novel. But McEwan, aside from being one of the most accomplished craftsmen of plot and prose, also happens to be a deeply provocative writer about science. His musings are often oblique and tangential—yet he manages to penetrate the spirals of some of the most engaging quandaries in contemporary science…Cognizant readers might recognize in Nutshell the influences of Richard Dawkins (about whose work McEwan has written thoughtfully) or Daniel Dennett—and a good dose of Agatha Christie—but it hardly matters: The pleasures of this tautly plotted book require no required reading.
Publishers Weekly
★ 07/25/2016
McEwan’s latest novel is short, smart, and narrated by an unborn baby. The narrator describes himself upside down in his mother’s womb, arms crossed, doing slow motion somersaults, almost full-term, wondering about the future. His mother listens to the radio, audiobooks, and podcasts, so just from listening he has acquired knowledge of current events, music, literature, and history. From experience, he’s formed opinions about wine and human behavior. What he’s learned of the world has him using his umbilical cord as worry beads, but his greatest concern comes from overhearing his mother and her lover plotting to kill his father. The mother, Trudy, is separated from John, the father. John is overweight, suffers from psoriasis, and, perhaps most annoying for Trudy, loves to recite poetry. Trudy’s lover, Claude, is a libidinous real estate developer who covets both John’s wife and their highly marketable London home. Claude also happens to be John’s brother. Echoes of Hamlet resound in the plans for fratricide, a ghost, and the baby’s contemplation of shuffling off his mortal coil. The murder plot structures the novel as a crime caper, McEwan-style—that is, laced with linguistic legerdemain, cultural references, and insights into human ingenuity and pettiness. Packed with humor and tinged with suspense, this gem resembles a sonnet the narrator recalls hearing his father recite: brief, dense, bitter, suggestive of unrequited and unmanageable longing, surprising, and surprisingly affecting. 150,000-copy announced first printing. (Sept.)
Library Journal
★ 09/01/2016
In the 17th century, René Descartes contended that merely doubting one's own existence simultaneously proved that one existed: Cogito, ergo sum. In his newest and most provocative work to date, McEwan (Atonement; Amsterdam) stretches the philosopher's dictum to its limits with a novel narrated from inside the womb. Trudy is the surrogate of the unborn narrator, living in her estranged husband's house while carrying on an affair with his brother, Claude. Endlessly rotating around, constantly awash in wine and food, and privy to the most hushed conversations between Trudy and Claude, the narrator learns of the star-crossed lovers' plot to poison Trudy's husband. Encased in amniotic fluid, the narrator is left to squirm in silence and await his arrival into the world, a world in which his mother murdered his father. This sensation of entrapment and helplessness mirrors Trudy's conspiratorial relationship with Claude. As their plan quickly unravels, Trudy finds herself alone and ensnared in a web of lies. VERDICT McEwan joins Eric D. Goodman (Womb: A Novel in Utero) and Emma Donoghue (Room) in penning an expansive meditation on stability and identity from a confined perspective.—Joshua Finnell, Los Alamos National Lab., NM
From the Publisher
Until the exciting day when McEwan . . . is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, his numerous and ardent fans enjoy the regular appearance of his highly intelligent and compellingly provocative novels. McEwan can be counted on to make the implausible plausible and the outrageous reasonable, and his talent in that regard is put to its consummate test in [Nutshell]. Startling at first but quickly acceptable and even embraced, this mesmerizing tale is narrated by an unborn, male fetus. . . . [H]e takes matters into his tiny little hands, which brings this ingenious tour de force to its stunning conclusion. As soon as words gets out, any new novel by this bestselling, Booker Prize–winning novelist causes a reader frenzy.” —Booklist (starred review)

“McEwan’s latest novel is short, smart, and narrated by an unborn baby. . . . Echoes of Hamlet resound in the plans for fratricide, a ghost, and the baby’s contemplation of shuffling off his mortal coil. The murder plot structures the novel as a crime caper, McEwan-style—that is, laced with linguistic legerdemain, cultural references, and insights into human ingenuity and pettiness. Packed with humor and tinged with suspense, this gem resembles a sonnet the narrator recalls hearing his father recite: brief, dense, bitter, suggestive of unrequited and unmanageable longing, surprising, and surprisingly affecting.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Ian McEwan’s delicious new novel, with its foetal narrator, is comedy gold. . . . In Nutshell, McEwan is a pentathlete at the top of his game, doing several very different things equally well. Current literary culture rarely awards gold medals for comedy, but this is one performance—agile, muscular, swift—you should not miss.” —The Times

Nutshell turns out to be a sparkling and gripping tale thanks to a batty conceit that somehow works extremely well. This is McEwan at play, giving us a short, sharp, sophisticated entertainment.” —Daily Express (four stars)

“[T]he familiar story retains a strong forward momentum. . . . [An] elegiac, masterpiece, a calling together of everything McEwan has learned and knows about his art.” —The Guardian

[A] smart, funny and utterly captivating novel. . . . Like his 1998 novel, Amsterdam, Nutshell is a small tour de force that showcases all of Mr. McEwan’s narrative gifts of precision, authority and control, plus a new, Tom Stoppard-like delight in the sly gymnastics that words can be perform. The restrictions created by the narrator’s situation—stuck inside a maternal nutshell—seem to have stimulated a surge of inventiveness on Mr. McEwan’s part . . . [His]little homunculus is, by turns, earnest, mocking, sarcastic, searching and irreverent . . . It’s preposterous . . . that a fetus should be thinking such earthshaking thoughts, but Mr. McEwan writes here with such assurance and élan that the reader never for a moment questions his sleight of hand.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Nutshell turns out to be a sparkling and gripping tale thanks to a batty conceit that somehow works extremely well. This is McEwan at play, giving us a short, sharp, sophisticated entertainment.” —Daily Express (four stars)

“At once playful and deadly serious, delightful and frustrating, it is one of McEwan’s hardest to categorise works, and all the more interesting for it. Giving it the title Nutshell doesn’t mean it can easily be placed in one.” —The Times

“In Nutshell, we see a bookish mind at play. And it turns out that a fetal Hamlet—bound, watching the inevitable event grow nearer, an extravagant and erring sprit confined in doubts and impotence—is actually just about right. . . . Nutshell is a joy: unexpected, self-aware and pleasantly dense with plays on Shakespeare. It isn’t Hamlet, and doesn’t particularly illuminate Hamlet, but dances beautifully with it. . . . For a good adaptation, play is the thing.” —NPR

[A] compact, captivating new novel. . . . [F]ormidable genius. . . . Is there another writer alive who can pull off a narrative line of this sort? . . . The writing is lean and muscular, often relentlessly gorgeous. . . . The literary acrobatics required to bring such a narrator-in-the-womb to life would be reason enough to admire this novel. But McEwan, aside from being one of the most accomplished craftsmen of plot and prose, also happens to be a deeply provocative writer about science. His musings are often oblique and tangential—yet he manages to penetrate the spirals of some of the most engaging quandaries in contemporary science. . . . Cognizant readers might recognize in Nutshell the influences of Richard Dawkins (about whose work McEwan has written thoughtfully) or Daniel Dennett—and a good dose of Agatha Christie—but it hardly matters: The pleasures of this tautly plotted book require no required reading.” —The New York Times Book Review

“The latest novel from Ian McEwan is like nothing we’ve read before. Nutshell is a gripping domestic drama told from a very unusual perspective: a baby in the womb. Sounds strange, but it works.” —Good Housekeeping
 
“Ian McEwan had form when it comes to creating arresting first-person narrators, but he excels himself with his latest novel, Nutshell. . . . [T]he conceit’s an ingenious one, and McEwan carries it off with aplomb—it really shouldn’t work, but it does. . . . [B]rims with life. In a nutshell, shall we say, it’s a corker.” —Tatler
 
Nutshell is a classic story of murder and revenge, told in an astonishing act of literary ventriloquism unlike any in recent literature. A bravura performance, it is the finest recent work from a true master.” —The Guardian

It takes a lion’s nerve to rewrite Hamlet from the viewpoint of a fetus, a stunt conceived and sweetly achieved by Ian McEwan in his latest novel, Nutshell. McEwan’s 197-page thimble brims with literary allusions, social commentary and murderous intrigue. . . . McEwan[’s] prose is always exquisite. . . . His Nutshell is a stunt, but a gorgeous one, studded with Joycean reflections on fathers, the wisdom of pop songs and reviews of placenta-filtered fine wine.” —The Washington Times

“[D]evilishly clever and darkly humorous. . . . In Nutshell, McEwan cleverly pulls off what might be little more than a gimmick in the hands of a lesser novelist. That he persuades us to suspend our disbelief so readily here is a testament to his consummate skill.” —BookPage

A sparkling, witty re-imagining of Hamlet starring an unborn baby. . . . As an example of point of view, you can look no farther than these gorgeous pages, which not only prove that brevity is the soul of wit but also offer the reader a voice both distinctive and engaging. . . . Can he [the unborn narrator] warn his father? If too late, can he avenge him? And how? The answers to these questions will keep the reader speeding through every page, each one rife with wordplay, social commentary, hilarity, and suspense. . . . Hats off to Ian McEwan. I’ve worn my Ticonderoga to a nub drawing a universe of stars in the margins of this charming book.” —The Boston Globe

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780385542074
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/13/2016
Pages:
208
Sales rank:
9,388
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as it muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.

I’m immersed in abstractions, and only the proliferating relations between them create the illusion of a known world. When I hear “blue,” which I’ve never seen, I imagine some kind of mental event that’s fairly close to “green”—which I’ve never seen. I count myself an innocent, unburdened by allegiances and obligations, a free spirit, despite my meagre living room. No one to contradict or reprimand me, no name or previous address, no religion, no debts, no enemies. My appointment diary, if it existed, notes only my forthcoming birthday. I am, or I was, despite what the geneticists are now saying, a blank slate. But a slippery, porous slate no school­room or cottage roof could find use for, a slate that writes upon itself as it grows by the day and becomes less blank. I count myself an innocent, but it seems I’m party to a plot. My mother, bless her unceasing, loudly squelching heart, seems to be involved.

Seems, Mother? No, it is. You are. You are involved. I’ve known from my beginning. Let me summon it, that moment of creation that arrived with my first concept. Long ago, many weeks ago, my neural groove closed upon itself to become my spine and my many million young neurons, busy as silkworms, spun and wove from their trailing axons the gorgeous golden fabric of my first idea, a notion so simple it partly eludes me now. Was it me? Too self-loving. Was it now? Overly dramatic. Then something antecedent to both, containing both, a single word mediated by a mental sigh or swoon of acceptance, of pure being, something like—this? Too precious. So, getting closer, my idea was To be. Or if not that, its grammatical variant, is. This was my aboriginal notion and here’s the crux—is. Just that. In the spirit of Es muss sein. The beginning of conscious life was the end of illusion, the illusion of non-being, and the eruption of the real. The triumph of realism over magic, of is over seems. My mother is involved in a plot, and therefore I am too, even if my role might be to foil it. Or if I, reluctant fool, come to term too late, then to avenge it.

Meet the Author

IAN MCEWAN is the bestselling author of sixteen books, including the novels The Children Act; Sweet Tooth; Solar, winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize; On Chesil Beach; Saturday; Atonement, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the W. H. Smith Literary Award; The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, both short-listed for the Booker Prize; Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize; and The Child in Time, winner of the Whitbread Award; as well as the story collections First Love, Last Rites, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and In Between the Sheets.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Oxford, England
Date of Birth:
June 21, 1948
Place of Birth:
Aldershot, England
Education:
B.A., University of Sussex, 1970; M.A., University of East Anglia, 1971
Website:
http://www.ianmcewan.com

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Nutshell 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous 3 months ago
Gimmicky, but he sort of pulls it off.
TheLoon 6 months ago
Just a really easy, fun book to read. What a fresh point of view! As we have come to expect Ian gives us all the play on words and reworked phrasing the reader could want.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Most unusual point of view. Great fast plot. Beautiful writing, as usual.
Anonymous 12 months ago
Nutshell
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read it in two sittings.
Piney10 More than 1 year ago
This was a wow for me although may not be for all! I would even rate it a 4.5. McEwan is a true master of prose and he did not disappoint. This novel was so creative by utilizing the protagonist as a baby in utero with parallels to Hamlet. This was so much better than the Hogarth Shakespeare project where many well known authors are tasked with writing the plays in the present. McEwan is a gifted writer and I have enjoyed all of his novels.