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Baby on board - 'Nutshell'

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McEwan novel features unique narrator

There are few things more disheartening to a reader than a literary device gone wrong. While there's something admirable about trying to write outside the box, the reality is that most of the time, said efforts result in work that is gimmicky or show-offy or overly self-aware. The tricks look like what they are tricks.

But when a talented writer takes an idea that sounds vaguely ludicrous on its surface and somehow turns it into a book that isn't just passable but good? Maybe even great? That's something special.

And that is precisely what Ian McEwan has done.

His latest novel is 'Nutshell' (Nan A. Talese, $24.95). It's a tale of deceit and betrayal, of love lost and lust found, of plans and plots both sinister and banal. But our window into this world comes not by way of a conspirator, nor of one being conspired against. No, our witness is ever-present, but ever-silent.

Our witness is an as-yet unborn baby.

Trudy has walked away from her marriage to failed poet John Cairncross; her disdain for him significant enough to lead her to cuckold him with his brother Claude. Despite that sad fact, John continues to care for Trudy and strive to find ways to convince her to return to him. He even lets her remain in his dilapidated-yet-immensely-valuable London townhouse while he waits for her to come to her senses.

Far from coming to her senses, however, she and Claude have determined that the best course of action is for the two of them to gain ownership of the townhouse so they might sell it for the millions such prime real estate would fetch. And the best way to make THAT happen is for John to meet an unfortunate end.

In the midst of the twisting branches of this family tree sits our unnamed narrator, the surprisingly erudite denizen of Trudy's womb. He is a silent witness, left to interpret the actions of his mother via what he can hear outside her body and what he can feel inside it.

(And yes he's a he, a fact we learn by way of a hilariously weird throwaway line.)

In essence, 'Nutshell' gives us an updated Hamlet in utero, an unborn child forced to bear witness to the blunt, tragic (and occasionally sticky) realities of a sinister plot. Not only does he not know how to save his father, he has no idea whether that's even the best course of action for him. Powerless to intervene save for the odd well-timed kick he must simply wait and see what kind of world he's about to enter.

It's an odd premise, to be sure. And it shouldn't work '200-plus page monologue about an overheard murder plot delivered by a bizarrely articulate fetus' is the sort of elevator pitch that likely results in a call to security. But McEwan's abilities are such that he's able to render even this strange scenario into something engaging and witty, a novel of effortless intelligence that takes time to delight in its own absurdity.

Few writers would have the temerity to roll the dice on such a high-concept premise. Fewer still would have the talent to pull it off. Yet 'Nutshell' comes together brilliantly, delivering again and again on the offbeat promise of the concept while still maintaining McEwan's usual exceptional narrative sense. And then there's the fact that the book's very sentences invite themselves to be rolled around both on the tongue and in the mind. All in all, there's no denying that this is a master at work.

'Nutshell' is a short novel, one that an engaged reader will likely push through quickly. That doesn't mean that it's a trifle, however. Far from it, in fact there's surprising heft for such a relatively slim volume. It's an atypical creative experiment from McEwan, a literary risk that pays off in myriad and surprising ways. In a nutshell, it's an unexpected and entertaining turn from one of our most gifted storytellers.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:37

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