Thursday, July 6, 2023

 Like most voracious readers, the last thing in the world I need is to add to my "to read" list, but I can't resist someone else's reading suggestions. This week, at the bottom of a list of suggestions of short books, I came across mention Ian McEwan's novel Nutshell. I have no idea how it escaped my attention this long, since it was published in 2016.

The protagonist of the novel is Hamlet--as a fetus--in modern-day London. He is the ultimate insider--pun intended. The action covers two or three days in the last couple of weeks before his mother Trudy is due to deliver. Young--very young--Hamlet, with his ear pressed against the uterine wall, is privy to the conniving of his mother and her lover Claude, whom he realizes is his father's brother.

His father John is a poet who runs a small publishing house, while his younger brother has more financial success. As the book opens, Trudy has moved her husband out of the house while she is "on a break." 

One could probably read and even appreciate the novel with only passing familiarity with what is arguably Shakespeare's most famous play, but for those who have studied the play or taught the play (dozens of times), the pleasure of recognizing not just lines lifted from the play, but suggestions of themes. Hamlet's world-weariness is, in this case, fed by secondhand exposure to his mother's podcasts. He also experiences secondhand exposure to her increasing alcohol intake as the situation grows more complicated. 

Considering the book was published pre-Covid, some of the references to current issues are fascinating--including conflict between Russia and Ukraine, gender ambiguity, climate issues, and increasing violence. McEwan's unborn protagonist with his astute sense of observation, self-awareness, and impressive vocabulary comes across as far more than a gimmick. 

I am glad I encountered the audiobook first, but I suspect I will need to add a hard copy of the book to my library so I can revisit the story to see how many allusions I missed.


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