From deep inside the mind in Saturday, Ian McEwan goes deep inside the womb in his latest book, Nutshell. The protagonist is yet to be born, but gives readers a pretty lucid account of happenings in the world outside. How? Because he listens—to conversations between his mother and her lover, and the radio, even if it’s the BBC, plus podcasts on a multitude of issues his mother is so fond of.
But what he gleans from the human conversations is much more sinister and complex than any mundane podcast on maggot farming in Utah or the physics of tennis—a plot of adultery, murder and double-cross.
Trudy is nearing the end of her pregnancy, but she is not living with her husband in her marital home. It is her lover instead, who happens to be her brother-in-law, who is her companion. However, the arrangement is not for any comfort; it’s purely symbiotic in nature. Both have one common aim—to eliminate Trudy’s husband so they can sell off his inheritance, the Georgian house in a boastful neighbourhood, in which Trudy lives. Both are sexually involved and carry on with their carnal adventures despite Trudy’s advanced pregnancy, much to the discomfort and loathing of the foetus. “Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence, with the teeming cream of his banality,” says the voice, astutely perceptive and surprisingly accurate.
But if Trudy and her lover, Claude have a plan, the foetus is no less scheming. Before knowing about the actual murder plan, he aims to reunite his parents. What the readers delight in is the play of words McEwan achieves. Sample this: “It’s in me alone that my parents forever mingle, sweetly, sourly, along separate sugar-phosphate backbones, the recipe for my essential self…I long to remarry them, this base pair, and so unite my circumstances to my genome.”
Perhaps never has the essence of genetics and structure of the DNA been described in such lyrical prose and this delightful interplay of words continues through the book. But then we expect no less from McEwan, and he doesn’t disappoint us either.
When the foetus learns that the intended murder victim is his father and Claude is his uncle, he’s in two minds about his love for his mother. But just like his father, he knows he’s hopelessly in love with Trudy, even if he is unsure of his fate after being born. He also enjoys the rather regular glasses of wine she downs, though preferring Sancerre over Sauvignon Blanc.
As the murder plot takes shape, a twin, Hamlet-like plot takes birth inside the womb. Attempts to foil the murder even include an attempted suicide by strangling with the umbilical cord, but even if that’s unsuccessful, there are more tricks up his alley. Finally, he manages to execute one with perfection, albeit at the last minute.
McEwan narrates his story with a novel perspective, and a plot that gets terser and terser with every book. If his previous The Children’s Act tugged at heartstrings, the author is delightfully wicked in his latest penmanship, exploring the fragility of relationships without judgment and an acceptance that is so true to the times we live in.