I tried to read Nutshell by Ian McEwan about a year ago and couldn’t get into it. I thought I’d reviewed my attempt to do so about a year ago around Shakespeare’s birthday but I can’t find the post.
Bardfilm recommended that I read through the whole thing, as the ending was worth discussing, so I forced myself through it.
Nutshell is a version of Hamlet told with a unique twist – Hamlet is Gertrude’s unborn child. That’s right, our narrator is a fetus.
In general I’m not a fan of first person narrative, I think it forces way too many unnatural hoops to jump through to get information to the audience in a way that the narrator would have known. Here that is magnified fifty fold, as our narrator can’t see anything that’s going on, nor can he go anywhere that Gertrude (or, as she’s named here, Trudy) doesn’t go. But that doesn’t stop him from knowing about the plot between his mom and her boyfriend (“Claude”) to kill his father (“John” because I guess there’s no easy way to modernize “Hamlet”). He knows when Claude loans his dad money. He knows what his mom is wearing. He knows where his mom and Claude go on dates, what she eats for dinner, and most importantly, what wine she likes.
Seriously, the wine is a recurring theme. It’s one thing to just say that Trudy is a drunk who doesn’t think that being really pregnant is maybe a reason to cut back. She drinks so much and so often that the fetus himself is a budding oenophile, hoping at different times that his mother partakes of a particular vintage. I hated this part in audio, he really sounds like Stewie from Family Guy.
Also to hate is the amount of sex that Trudy and Claude are having. It’s a lot. And, since he’s got a front row seat, it’s described play by play and blow by blow by our narrator (who hates it, if that wasn’t obvious). Have you ever wondered what a sex scene reads like when it’s narrated from the inside? Yeah, don’t.
The most fun part about this book is the way the author tosses in references to the original text, like a treasure hunt. There are so many I can barely remember them, but one easy example was when the narrator said of Claudius, “As a man, he was a real piece of work.” See what he did there? 🙂 References like that are just all over the book, and if you’re a fan of Hamlet you’ll have a great time trying to spot them all.
There’s not much Hamlet story here. No Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius, Horatio. Just Gertrude and Claudius, already together and plotting against Hamlet’s father. At best it’s something of a character study of how the author sees Hamlet. Sometimes it was as if he was going through a checklist — they like to drink in the original? Check. Hamlet’s obsessed with how often his mother is sleeping with his uncle? Check.
But at some point you get to interpret for yourself. Do we like this Gertrude? Is she a good person? How different is she from the original, and how? What do her actions say about her feelings for the men in her life?
If you like plumbing the depths of the framework Shakespeare gave us for these characters, and get a special little thrill of excitement every time you see a Hamlet reference in a completely different context, then you’ll probably like this one. I am part of a book club at work, and none of them are really Shakespeare geeks, so I couldn’t see any of them getting anything out of this at all. One even went so far as to suggest that the author wrote it on a dare, because she’s a fan of his other work.