Ian McEwan has been one of my favourite writers for many years; perhaps he is even my very favourite writer. I find his books both scintillatingly engaging right from the start, but sometimes so painful and often macabre that I can remember once, years and years ago – perhaps it was The Cement Garden? – I had to stop reading it on the train home from work and wait until later to finish it. Or maybe it was The Child in Time, recently made into an excellent TV film starring Benedict Cumberbatch? The story of every parent’s nightmare: taking your eyes from a small child for just one moment, to pay for something in a shop, and wham! The child is gone and your life will never be the same.
Nutshell also brings a lot of wham! bang! OMG! shocks. And it hooks you in from the very first two sentences: ‘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.’ This is McEwan at his most inventive: a brilliant retelling of Hamlet but from the perspective of a ‘Hamlet’ in the womb, waiting to be born, all too aware of what’s going on outside. Gertrude becomes Trudy; Claudius is Claude. As the unborn Hamlet gradually realises that his mother and uncle are plotting to kill his father, we are witness to his dreadful dilemma: horror at what is planned and the child’s strong yearning to love their parent. And, of course, Hamlet is all about revenge, so how will this unborn child avenge the murder of his father? Well, I won’t spoil the ending, though of course we know how the story plays out, but this time in McEwan’s unique and chilling way. I found this a totally compelling, clever, suspenseful read but full too of wonderful humour that made me actually laugh. Highly recommended.