Apparently, according to mum who lent me the book, Ian McEwan was put out by not being invited to write a book for the Hogarth Shakespeare series and decided to write one anyway ... so here we have 'Nutshell', in which Trudy and Claude (Gertrude and Claudius) are plotting the demise of John, witnessed only by the foetus awaiting its imminent birth. Narrated entirely by the foetus, who is pretty worldly wise for someone who hasn't been outside much, it is a wonderfully effective way of relating what amounts to a prequel to Hamlet. As Monkey tells me, Hamlet is a very much play of soliloquies and so the unborn baby gives his unformed, but not uninformed, opinions about the drama that he is party to. The conversations between the lovers are related second hand, often abridged and sometimes confused by the wine that passes across the placenta to dull his senses. He lurches between fierce love for his mother and frustration at being unable to protect his father from the unfolding events. It is nothing like any of the other Hogarth books, all of which followed the plot of their respective plays quite closely, and yet it manages very successfully to capture the essence of the play and the character of Hamlet.
Here he hints at what he has been hearing within the womb:
"I used to think that their discretion was no more than ordinary, amorous intimacy. But now I'm certain. They airily bypass their vocal cords because they're planning a dreadful event. Should it go wrong, I've heard them say, their lives will be ruined. They believe that if they're to proceed, they should act quickly and soon. They tell each other to be calm and patient, remind each other of the cost of their plan's miscarriage, that there are several stages, that each must interlock, that is any single one fails, then all must fail 'like old-fashioned Christmas tree lights' - this impenetrable simile from Claude, who rarely says anything obscure. What they intend sickens and frightens them, and they can never speak of it directly. Instead, wrapped in whispers are ellipses, euphemisms, mumbled aporia followed by throat-clearing and a brisk change of subject." (p.9)
Trudy lives in the marital home, a crumbling wreck that is worth a small fortune, surrounded by decay and neglect. I came to feel that the state of the house is some extended metaphor for the corruption of their plans:
"I try to see her as she is, as she must be, the gravidly ripe twenty-eight-year-old youngly slumped (I insist on the adverb) across the table, blonde and braided like a Saxon warrior, beautiful beyond realism's reach, slender but for me, near naked, sunnily pink on the upper arms, finding space on the kitchen table for her elbows amongst the yolk-glazed plates of a month ago, the toast and sugar crumbs that houseflies daily vomit on, the reeking cartons and coated spoons, the fluids dried to scabs on junk-mail envelopes. I try to see her and love her as I must, then imagine her burdens: the villain she's taken for a lover, the saint she's leaving behind, the deed she's spoken for, the darling child she'll abandon to strangers. Still love her? If not, then you never did. But I did, I did, I do." (p.47)
It is a very intense and intimate book, very much about the uncertainty of the future and a life determined by forces beyond our control. The question remains, how can someone so small and vulnerable thwart the plans of these murderers, is there a means for him to ensure their just deserts? Read and find out.