Published in November 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Foetuses are surprisingly knowing things, at least when novelists make them talk. The one in Nicola Barker’s short story “Inside Information” came by its knowledge as a transmigrated soul, yet to be scraped clean by the trauma of birth. The third-trimester narrator of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell has been learning from more prosaic sources: his future mother’s consumption of Radio 4, with a hefty side-order of podcasts. He—the foetus has noticed a “shrimp-like protruberance” between his legs—is therefore full of orotund received wisdom on subjects from Syria to safe spaces at universities.
But he is less sure, and desperately worried, about the immediate world into which he is about to emerge. What exactly is Trudy, his mother, planning with her cliché-spouting property-developer lover, Claude? Just how much danger awaits his poet-publisher father, John? And what do they all plan for him? Amid the looping digressions, their story of murder and betrayal pushes forward at thriller speed.
It’s unclear whether the “Drama of the Week” podcast has done Hamlet recently: much of the narrator’s language would suggest so (he also has Claude misquote Lady Macbeth), but he has missed twists that its plot might have helped him to see coming.
Even for a more knowing reader, the plot still holds surprises, as well as pleasurable jolts of recognition. But the rapidity that makes it compulsive also means the world outside the womb never quite acquires emotionally affecting reality. Nutshell remains a splendid lark, in which the narrator’s voice —his cross-placental wine connoisseurship, his precocious grumpiness about World Service theme music—is what will linger in the memory.