Book Review – Nutshell by Ian McEwan

books, reviews

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Ian McEwan used to be one of my favourite authors. I would instantly buy any book that he wrote. Over time, it became harder to care. I’d either not read it or just wouldn’t bother buying them. It wasn’t until Nutshell came out that I was bothered by his latest releases. It just sounded so good. So good that I promptly bought a copy and then didn’t read it for years. I tried to read it once but couldn’t get into it. I figured it was just going to be another one of those books that sit on my shelves forever unread. Until I found the audiobook in the library catalogue. Then it became the soundtrack to my work over a couple of days this week. Was it worth the wait?

Have you ever wondered what Hamlet would be like had Hamlet been an unborn baby instead of an indecisive man? Well, wonder no longer because Nutshell is pretty much that. Narrated by the 8-month-old foetus, the book takes us through a murderous plot acted out by their mother and uncle. A murderous plot involving their own father. The unborn child is the only witness and has to sit helplessly by as it all unfolds in front of them.

It’s a pretty enticing premise and one that I was excited to see. I’d tried to read the book years ago but couldn’t get into it. I found the audiobook helped with that and think this is the best way to go. It can be quite dense at times and there’s a lot going on. The baby’s father is a poet and it has clearly influenced them. Be prepared for a lot of analysis of society, language, art and environmentalism. This is one knowledgable foetus and their not prepared to hold back.

Even though it’s a lot, there is something so wonderful about this book. It’s just a fun concept that plays out well. I liked the fact that we didn’t really get to know anyone or their history. We don’t learn an awful lot of value about the characters in question but we learn some very personal things at the same time. It was an interesting experiment and I think the idea was very well executed for the most part.

Yes, for the most part. You see, it was all going well for the majority of the book. It was a lot but I was coping. Then the foetus went on a weird rant about gender and woke culture. It just seemed unrelated to anything and came across as rather bitter. This whole section and a few other rambles took me right out of the story. It felt more like Ian McEwan had a few gripes to get out and couldn’t think of a better time to do it. Especially as I’ve read McEwan’s recent novella Cockroach and thought the same thing. It’s just a weird thing that doesn’t quite fit.

Of course, I know that there is more going on in this book than just a plot to commit murder. It’s probably a metaphor for a bunch of things that McEwan thinks are wrong with society. I’m okay with that. I just think it was a particularly jarring way to gripe about modern society. Especially as it just came across as out of touch. It pushed me so far out of the story that I couldn’t get back in. Up until that point, it had been a solid 4 stars but I can’t bring myself to go higher than 3 now. I didn’t engage with the ending at all.

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