Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Ian McEwan's "Nutshell": Book Review

Compulsively Readable Novels

I've only read two of this prolific talent's novels, the lesser-known Solar and The Cement Garden. McEwan tells stories in a dour but somehow spirited fashion, garnering a wide readership while appealing to the critics and academics, over many decades. Indeed, I found Cement remaindered when I was still in high school, shortly after its publication. I never forgot its chilly air, but it may have steered me away from following the disparate paths taken by him in other foreboding tales.

With a keen interest in Hamlet going back to high school too, I was eager to enjoy Nutshell. It flows well, and can be finished in a long sitting, as it's two-hundred pages that turn easily for the rapt reader. Suffice to say that as in the original source, you cheer on the revenge sought by the protagonist. But, attesting to the skill in creating Gertrude in 1603 or Trudy in 2016, I also wanted her flawed, brittle character to succeed. Her machinations with boorish Claude against his brother John Cairncross (not Hamish so-and-so, I suppose!) unfold with the same suspense Shakespeare sparked.

"The rustling sound is a plastic bag containing groceries or tools of death or both." So reports the fetus narrating the plots of his mother against his father and with his uncle's collusion. He gets a buzz of Trudy's wining and suffers the slings and arrows of her unsteady gait up and down the stairs, too.

McEwan's ingenuity in giving the first-person voice to one inside the womb limits its reports to what his senses pick up, enhancing the eerie nature of this account from the not-yet-born. "Now I live inside a story and fret about its outcome. Where's boredom or bliss in that?" The teller misses Dad.

His replacement fails to satisfy. As Claude accepts some chore Trudy metes out, we are told: "The man who obliterates my mother between the sheets obeys like a dog. Sex, I begin to understand, it its own mountain kingdom, secret and intact. In the valley below we know only rumours." These analogies are spare, but they speckle the story with McEwan's delicate prose, sharpening the plot, too.

Asides are bearable. Digressions, after all, enliven Shakespeare, McEwan discredits religion for the past millennium of "groundless certainty" and threatening under fanaticism today to sweep Europe. The dubious primacy afforded one's fluid feelings as the ultimate determiner of identity and selfhood looms in Trudy as indicative of the failure of the Enlightenment, as reason diminishes in us moderns.

And, climate change and global warming threaten our very existence. McEwan hovers via his hidden narrator here between hope and fear, like many of us who read this. In the end of this thoughtful thriller, as it turns out to be in its final section, we are left with a sudden burst into this chaos of life. (Amazon US 11/19/16)

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