So you like making goo-goo noises at innocent babes-in-arms? Well, pause for reflection. Ian McEwan’s wildly imaginative new offering makes a case for premature infant awareness that is both disturbing – and very funny.
The fact that he shamelessly plagiarises Hamlet in order to bolster this fancy is incidentally amusing, but the strangely convincing commentary by the protagonist, cramped uncomfortably in mother’s womb, is a warning to those who would patronise little people.
This particular miniature person-in-waiting is learning fast. Eavesdropping on the nefarious doings of a seductively wicked female parent and her manipulative lover is profoundly instructive. Mummy, sulky Trudy, writhes in an orgy of sex and booze while fending off the reconciliatory advances of her overly romantic poet husband. Lover Claude has a dull agenda but a potent sex drive. Trudy has chosen the lustful dullard.
The fact that the rutting couple’s activities often restrict the unborn baby’s accommodation does not hamper the humping. But baby is not amused. Particularly when it transpires that there’s a plot afoot to murder father John.
At this point the subject of filthy lucre is introduced to the child’s mind. Of course, children need to know about the role of hard cash in a cruel world, but the little one is horrified at the notion that some people would kill for it. So, while loving the mother (for both natural and survival reasons) the infant mind is alarmed by questions of morality.
McEwan is at the top of his game just now. His success as a novelist, awash with film glories and prizes, allows him latitude to play with ideas. Nutshell is the equivalent of hearing a celebrated concert pianist playing jazz, for fun. Not that he avoids the big issues of the day. On the contrary: he once again dazzles with trademark fluency and high intelligence.
Baby learns much from mother’s reliance on radio entertainment during the longueurs of late pregnancy. The documentary broadcasts are illuminating. In the still of the night a distinguished commentator with a deep, rich voice warns that all is not well with the world. She observes two states of mind internationally: self-pity and aggression.
“Now that the Russian state was the political arm of organised crime, another war in Europe was not inconceivable.” In the barbaric fringes of Islam, the cry goes up: we’ve been humiliated, we’ll be avenged. And psychopaths are a constant fraction of humanity. Armed struggle attracts them.
All these current menaces are economically stirred into the mix of a gripping thriller. For Nutshell is exciting, with convincing villains and cunning policemen. And eventually the baby solves an intriguing puzzle: is it a boy baby or girl baby? Ah – goo-goo!
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