Ian McEwan’s ‘Nutshell’ (2016) is narrated by an unborn child. As a writer, any choice we make about point of view limits what can be told, unless we go full omniscient. So you’d think the womb would be quite a limiting factor. This foetus manages to be both totally aware and very chatty. We can only thank goodness his mother listens to a lot of BBC podcasts to give him information about the wider world.
The world closer to home is fraught. ‘Nutshell’ follows the plot of Hamlet. The mother of the foetus and her lover are plotting his father’s murder. McEwan gets the setting of the narrator well and truly: ‘Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose’ (p. 21); ‘Anxiously, I finger my cord. It serves for worry beads’ (p. 27).
Slowly it becomes clear the lover is his father’s brother. You don’t need to know Shakespeare to enjoy the unravelling of the characters, and knowing Shakespeare does not get in the way of the shock of the twists and turns. (One exception perhaps: knowing the original does make sense of the ghost and the foetus’s response to it, which is hardly fathomable in the rational 21st century).
I am a fan of Ian McEwan from way back, but I am not uncritical. There are some distracting flights of bile: diatribes about the state of the world in 2016. The foetus sounds remarkably like a jaded sixty year old man. ‘Nutshell’ is most enjoyable when we stay with the forward movement of the plot – and when I say enjoyable, I mean really enjoyable.
Confucius said, before you embark on revenge, dig two graves. ‘Revenge unstitches a civilisation’ (p. 135). Yep, go for it foetus!
‘Nutshell’ also made me think about other novel narrators. The obvious outliers are the dead, death, and the unborn. Alice Sebold’s has a dead girl narrate ‘Lovely Bones’ (2002), Death himself does it in Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’ (2005), plus Kate Atkinson (who I do read without criticism) starts ‘Behind the Scenes of the Museum’ (1995) in the womb. ‘I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight’ (p. 9). Ruby is born and then that novel progresses. Staying in the womb throughout in ‘Nutshell’ is therefore a bit of a feat.
Finding an interesting perspective can give a new dimension to any storytelling. I tried to think of the most outlandish narrators possible. The Christmas turkey, pet axolotl, lost sock, bar stool at the corner pub, a shooting star – the last, a very brief narrative. But when I wrote the list down it felt like they’ve all been written somewhere, sometime by someone.
Back to human voices then.
The image of the foetus comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. It is by William Hunter (1718-1783) with this print dating from 1851.