Nutshell – Ian McEwan – Audible Book Review by Pat V.
“I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.” – Louis MacNeice
MacNeice might have been writing about the hero of Nutshell when he wrote his “Prayer before Birth” in 1944. “Hero” may not be the best word to describe the unnamed narrator of Ian McEwan’s latest novel as the central character is an eight month-old foetus in his mother’s womb, trying to understand the world into which he is soon to make his entrance. His perceptions are based on snatches of conversations and educational podcasts he sometimes manages to overhear, but he quickly comes to the conclusion, like MacNeice’s unborn child, that the outside world is a dangerous place.
Frightened by the rise of racial and religious intolerance, global warming and economic uncertainties (even Brexit gets a mention!), this foetus has the added fear that he is not exactly a welcome addition to his family. In fact, he’s not even sure if he has a family. He realises that his parents are not the loving couple he might hope for and that in fact, as in the case of Princess Di, there are three (if not four) people in their marriage. Gradually he becomes aware that even more sinister acts are afoot and he must look on, impotent, unable to stop what he fears is about to happen.
McEwan’s book, a mix of social commentary, murder mystery and domestic drama, is stylish, engaging and a treat to listen to. With echoes of Hamlet and Macbeth, it is, at the same time, very funny and extremely sad. The foetus, in his brief existence, experiences the whole gamut of human emotions: hope, fear, love, disappointment as well as developing a refined palate that can differentiate between the vintages of the Merlot and Chablis that his mother imbibes regularly during her pregnancy (always stopping, to his frustration, before the third glass in case the embryo is affected!).
McEwan has already won the Booker Prize for his 1998 novel, Amsterdam, and a number of his other books, including Enduring Love and Atonement, have been made into successful films. Saoirse Ronan is soon to be seen on our screens in a film adaptation of his 2008 work, On Chesil Beach, and, while Nutshell may be more challenging to adapt to the big screen, the novel has already been received with great critical acclaim and is certainly destined to sweep the boards in next year’s literary awards.
The reader for this Audible version is Rory Kinnear, probably chosen for his stunning performance as Hamlet in the 2010 production at the National Theatre. He is perfect as the curious, confused and frustrated narrator. His ironic tone echoes McEwan’s subtle humour and he captures the tension as the story develops to its nail-biting conclusion. If you are to listen to only one audiobook this year, this is the one to pick – McEwan at the top of his form!
The audiobook is available from audible.co.uk and lasts 5h26.