Nutshell by Ian McEwan (Nan Talese, Doubleday New York, 2017)

Conceits like those employed by Ian McEwan in his new novel, “Nutshell”, rarely succeed. Concocted points of view, skewed voices, or ghostly and enigmatic tale-tellers (such conceits were common in 60s fiction, eg. the work of John Barth) strain a reader’s credulity and patience. McEwan, author of bestsellers like “Atonement” and “Amsterdam” employs an particularly unusual conceit in his new book—the story, one of deceit, adultery and ultimately murder, is told from the point of view of a fetus. Amazingly, the conceit achieves victory over its circumstances and we the readers eventually find ourselves wholly engaged in the reportorial and moral authority of the teller. The fetus becomes both a fully fleshed (so to speak) character, but one with plenty to say on the topics of love, life and with, ultimately, death and moral failure. And there’s a lot to say about sex and amniotic fluid.

In a nutshell the plot concerns a fetus that bears witness to a plot by his mother to murder his father and marry his uncle—certainly an Oedipal situation if there ever was one. The father, a poet and small press publisher, is also a cuckold and hanger-on, while the mother and uncle are drunks and schemers. The ending is a shocker in small caps, but an ending with clout.

Here’s a sample of McEwan’s writing. The fetus is contemplating the nature of his own consciousness. Confined in a narrow “sack” inside his mother’s womb, able to hear and feel his surroundings, and able to narrowly engage with the outside world of sense and emotion, the fetus ponders:  “I’ve heard it argued that long ago pain began consciousness. To avoid serious damage a simple creature needs to evolve the whips and goads of a subjective loop, of a felt experience. Not just a red warning light in the head—who’s there to see it?—but a sting, an ache a throb that hurts. Adversity forced awareness on us, and it works, it bites us when we go too near the fire, when we love too hard. Those felt sensations are the beginning of the invention of the self. And if that works, why not feeling disgust for shit, fearing the cliff edge and strangers, remembering insults and favours, liking sex and food? God said, Let there be pain. And there was poetry. Eventually.”

For a long time I’ve been annoyed by McEwan’s affected prose, his stance as a committed aesthete and intellectual. I much preferred his early books like “First Love, Last Rites”, “The Cement Garden” and “The Comfort of Strangers”, which investigated perversions and criminality.   “Nutshell”, given its effrontery in using a fetus-point-of-view, was a dangerous project that succeeds entirely. And it has plenty to say about the post-modern condition, terrorism, migration, emigration, the European Union and contemporary politics. It is a howling success of a novel.