Review: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

dscf1151Ian McEwan is without a doubt a man of high standing within the literary community. With a rich back catalogue, including film adaptations, McEwan has certainly appeared to earn his fame. Now, I have never read a McEwan novel (the horror!). The closest I have come to his work was watching the film adaptation of Atonement, which I found rather average, and did not massively inspire me. Nevertheless, we all know that more often than not the books are much better than the film versions, and I remained keen to explore this author’s work.

McEwans latest book, NutShell¸ has just been released, and whilst shopping during a recent trip to London it seemed like a wise choice to start the exploration into this writer’s work.  I also managed to get a copy signed by the author from Hatchard’s! Whilst it might not be personally signed, I still think it is pretty cool!

Many people have been going rather crazy over McEwans newest book, mainly because it is so different to the latest books he has been bringing out. As I have said, I have not read anything else by McEwan, but I know that he has started to get a bit of a reputation for writing about various middle/high class professionals. This book, on the other hand, is an immediate sharp contrast, being narrated by an unborn foetus. Yes, you read that right. A foetus. We are told the story from this unborn child, as he watches his mother and her lover plan to commit a terrible murder. In essence, a straightforward, but highly captivating (and original) plot.

What was immediately clear from this first foray into McEwans work was that he can write. His writing may not be for everyone, with his highly literary style offering more of a challenge than many other authors, yet no one can doubt that he has a strong command over the words at his disposal. One of his more simplistic paragraphs comes at the very opening of the novel, immediately drawing the read in with suspense:

‘So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. […] my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.’ (p. 1).

This simpler paragraph is clearly well written and highly skilled, paving the way for the literary style of the book. Having said that, I did find this rather overwhelming after the first few chapters. I felt that in many ways the book read more as an exercise on how skilled McEwan’s writing can be, rather than a story in its own right. Whilst I really did find the premise of the book intriguing, I liked the idea more than the execution itself. The novel read as overclogged with a grand literary style and highly skilled word choices which I did not feel necessary one hundred percent of the time. It is hard going when every word of a book feels as if it has been chosen specifically to showcase the author’s vocabulary and literary talent. Because of this, I felt the novel read as if McEwan had a point to prove. Now, as mentioned, I have not read his other novels, so perhaps this is just McEwan’s writing style. Having said that, I did still find it rather staged, and being stylised in this particular way took away some of the enjoyment for me.

The choice of narration itself was enjoyable and cleverly executed. It was quite hard to remember that our narrator has a limited perspective (he cannot, after all, see anything), and that his views and opinions might not necessarily be true in reality. Despite this, it was very impressive how much the reader is actually able to piece together purely through what the foetus hears or is able to decipher.  I did not feel that the narration was lacking, and it certainly made me wonder what it would be like to live in a world akin to the foetus’s. What I found particualrily interesting was the feelings I gathered towards the foetus’s father, despite the foetus never having actually met him. I found myself having to remind myself that this man was in fact the baby’s father, and as such his opinions are likely to be highly biased.

The Foetus itself, as you can tell from the writing style, is extremely intelligent, with clear conscious thought. He listens to the radio, podcasts, lecture recordings and the general conversations through his mothers stomach, exposed to exactly the same sounds as she is. As such, he picks up quite a high intelligence level, being able to discuss war and politics among many other topics. In many ways, you do almost forget that this is a child still in the womb. Having said that, some of the things the foetus comes out with just did not seem plausible. I can understand him getting some knowledge from his mother’s world, but the sheer extent to which he gathers this information, how he understands complex matters, and the way in which he is able to even imagine things he would never have heard before, just did not come across as authentic to me. Likewise, some of the topics he speaks about I did not feel would have been mentioned or available for him to take in. Then again, we must remember this book is narrated by a foetus, and a certain degree of fantasy must be allowed.

This book is very short (under 200 pages), and the majority of the book is spent inside the foetus’s thoughts and feelings. In this way, the book felt very self introverted, and did not feel as dependent on plot. In many ways I felt this was a shame, as the plot was a very interesting (and quite surprising) one, and I felt that the perspective of a foetus naturally limited the exploration of this somewhat. On the other hand, by having the novel so self involved within the foetus’s mind, it reflects his environment, stimulating the reader into a womb like space where we are restricted in our own environment, Just as our narrator is. In this light, this was a very clever narrative device on the writers part.

Following on from this, the book itself is also beautifully designed to reflect this. There is an interesting use of the title’s design to reflect the foetus which was cleverly executed. Likewise, the dust jacket is a dusty pink, which I found symbolic of the human outer skin, whilst the inside end pages are a deeper red, mirroring the bloody inside of the womb space. Both the aesthetic and the prose combine together to solidify this association.


Something I wasn’t expecting from this book was the presence of poetry. The foetus’s father works in this industry, and as such the novel is saturated with poetic lines, and poetic terminology, which all contributed to give McEwan a very knowledgeable appearance where differing forms of writing are concerned. I am not really a huge lover of poetry, but I found these bits enjoyable and thought provoking, as well as making me quite reminiscent of my University days.

I did enjoy this book, although perhaps not as much as I would have anticipated or wished to. I certainly feel that Ian McEwan is a brilliantly skilled writer, and I do want to explore more of his other works. It was a shame that I felt the plot felt somewhat flat in comparison to the foetus itself, but again, this could very well be the author’s intention to immerse us within this single space, experiencing life as limiting as the foetus’s must be. It certainly provides an interesting look into the relationship between mother and unborn child,  raising the questions as to what each owes the other, and how dependent each of the pair is.

I would be interested to know what people think of McEwan’s work, and if this is a good example of his usual writing style? Or, indeed, how this latest novel compares to his previous excursions. How did you feel the novel worked as  whole?

Publisher: Jonathan Cape (Imprint of Vintage Books)

Rating: 3*/5*


5 thoughts on “Review: Nutshell by Ian McEwan

  1. Nirmala says:

    Although I’m a huge fan of Ian McEwan, I’m yet to buy and read his latest. Out of the books I’ve read of his, I really enjoyed Atonement and Enduring Love. 🙂


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